Allen back in spotlight, promoting 'Magic in the Moonlight'

Woody Allen (center) directs a scene from 'Magic in the Moonlight' with Emma Stone and Colin Firth.
Woody Allen (center) directs a scene from 'Magic in the Moonlight' with Emma Stone and Colin Firth.
Photo by Sony Pictures Classics
| Sunday, Aug. 17, 2014, 9:00 p.m.

Throughout his long career, Woody Allen has been fascinated by magic, a theme he's explored often on screen: playing a magician in “Scoop,” sending Owen Wilson on time travel in “Midnight in Paris,” or pulling Jeff Daniels off of a movie screen in “The Purple Rose of Cairo.”

His latest is the lighthearted period romp “Magic in the Moonlight.”

Anyone who expected Allen to speak further on the personal issues that arose last year — the revival of abuse accusations by his adopted daughter, Dylan Farrow — will be disappointed. The 78-year-old director has held true to his word that he would say nothing further, following a February letter to The New York Times in which he vigorously denied the allegations.

The question does remain whether Allen's personal issues might affect the public reception of his new film, which stars Colin Firth as a cynical stage magician and Emma Stone as the young spiritualist whose magical powers he seeks to debunk. “One thing doesn't have to do with the other,” says Michael Barker, co-president of Sony Pictures Classics, which released the film.

Box-office expert Paul Dergarabedian expects fans to agree. “For fans, I think there's a total separation that occurs with Woody Allen,” says the senior media analyst for box-office tracker Rentrak. “Coming in, you know there's this baggage, ... but his filmmaking transcends all that. His audiences seem to keep lining up for his films.”

So far, reviews for the new film have been mixed. But, Allen says, he long ago stopped trying to figure out how his movies will be received.

“I'm always disappointed in each movie when I'm finished,” he says, “because there's a big difference between the fantasy you have when you're home writing the thing, and you think, this is going to be so great ... and then you actually have to execute it. ... And so, I'm always disappointed, and I never have an idea which ones are going to resonate with an audience.”

Dergarabedian notes that big-name actors “are still lining up to work with Allen.” That would include Firth and Stone, both working with Allen for the first time.

“His work has had such a specific role to play in my whole relation with movies,” Firth says, “that to suddenly be invited to join the narrative a bit is thrilling.”

Stone is only 25 but still has a connection to Allen's films. “My mom showed me ‘Annie Hall,'” says the actress, who notes that her family dog is named Alvy, after Alvy Singer, Allen's role in that film.

“I was incredibly nervous,” Stone says of working with Allen. But clearly it worked out: She's shooting his next movie, with Joaquin Phoenix.

In “Moonlight,” you could say Firth has the requisite Allen protagonist role. And his character, Stanley, exudes the same cynicism about magic and spiritualism that Allen feels. “He's a magician who'd love to be proven wrong,” Allen says. Especially because “he knows that life is a tough, brutal, grim, meaningless grind full of heartache and tragedy, accruing to nothing.”

If that sounds sober, listen to Allen's own (abridged here) view of life:

“In the end,” he says, “you realize that you're just a human being on the face of the earth, an insignificant agglomeration of cells and neurons, and eventually that expires, and eventually everything expires. It's terrifying.”

Allen says the best antidote is distraction, a gift he's been trying to give his audiences for 50 years. But don't expect a happy answer to the question of whether experience makes him a better director.

“I wish that were true,” he says, ruefully. “In an art form, you start from scratch all the time. You gain a little technique over the years. But inspirationally — that's in the lap of the gods.

“If I'm lucky, I get a great inspiration and it's a good film. If I'm not lucky, I get less inspired, and it's not such a good film.”

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