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It’s Been a Year Already?

“The heart wants what it wants,” Woody Allen has taught us, and apparently what his heart wants these days is not to have to bother with writing second drafts of film scripts. His latest, Magic in the Moonlight, plays like a sumptuous vacation, its stars larking in ’20s finery about the grandest estates of Provence and Côte d’Azur. Each frame is buttered by heavenly wealth — the splendor is part Rules of the Game, part Mount Olympus from the original Clash of the Titans. But as the stars roam those gardens and vistas in their jaunty flapper couture, the story feels shapeless, un-tailored, defiantly off the rack.

Magic in the Moonlight‘s mystery is pedestrian and predictable, and its lovers — Colin Firth and Emma Stone — fall for one another for no reason other than they happen to be the leads in a Woody Allen movie. Everyone declaims the film’s meager themes, as if we’re watching the actors’ what’s-my-motivation? prep work rather than their final performances. Even Stone and Firth find speaking Allen’s lumpish dialogue to be something like getting down a mouthful of oatmeal. Occasionally, an actor will shape a line with the hopeful sharpness of a joke, which suggests that someone on set may have been telling them that the film is a comedy.

Firth has his moments, which is no surprise — he’s Colin Firth. He plays Stanley, a famous but secretive stage magician and a boor of towering self-regard, who thinks he’s the only person alive who has noticed that superstition is bunk and that there might not be a God. The plot Allen concocts for him might have come from a ’54 issue of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine: A magician friend (Simon McBurney) invites him to the home of some jillionaires to smoke out a comely medium (twinkly Stone) who seems to display miraculous gifts in séances — and who is poised to marry the handsome heir to the fortune, despite being a Midwesterner with no pedigree. Can rational Stanley expose what must be a very clever fraud — and preserve the class order?

Stanley tells us again and again that he believes in a rational universe. Allen has spent his life doing that, too, but always allowing for one exception: the reckless illogic of hearts. The tension between cool know-it-alls and their mad gushes of desire have fueled many of his richest and most insightful films. Rarely, though, has that conflict been so baldly and blandly aired. It even gives the film its slapdash act structure: The first two-thirds show us Stanley chipping away at the mystery in listless séances and dithering, flirty interrogations, scenes Allen bites into with all the vigor of an old Irish setter gumming a tennis ball.

That wraps up with half an hour of movie left — but somehow still long after you’ll have worked the truth out for yourself. After that, Magic in the Moonlight lurches from overdetermined rationality to fantastical romance, as the godless universe bends over backward to unite a pair of characters who have not previously connected in any way that mere audiences might have noticed.

Stone does what she can: In trance and romance both she’s more sly than the words coming out of her mouth, and she crinkles prettily at Stanley, but only Allen knows what exactly she’s crinkling at. Anyone nostalgic for those scenes of Annie Hall getting upbraided for not going back to school will relish Stanley giving Stone’s medium prickly lessons in Nietzsche and survey-course Shakespeare quotes. Has anyone yet assembled a YouTube super cut of Woody Allen heroes telling younger women which books to read? And by this late date, is there even any point in crunching the numbers between Allen’s leading men and leading ladies? If X is Stone’s age, Firth’s is 2X + 3.

Both Stone and Firth look smashing, posed on cliff sides and in roadsters with the sun in their hair, and that may be enough for audiences just hoping to buy 100 more minutes in Allen’s Midnight in Paris-style lost-generation timeshare. But by the end, Stone gets stuck playing the cheapest romantic comedy nonsense. To set up the cute final moments, her character must say and feel wildly contradictory things in back-to-back scenes — all toward a man who has, for most of the movie, been a charmless prat determined to shame her.

At one point, midway through, Stanley becomes convinced that she truly does have some ability to contact a spirit realm, which for him means science can no longer be trusted and that maybe there is a God, and on and on. He calls a press conference to announce this and introduce her to the world; it’s the movie’s biggest laugh, as, for some reason, the reporters questions are all directed at him.

Such uncertain, ill-considered scene craft is a hallmark of Allen’s late-late period. But I can say this for that sequence: It’s the one thing in Magic in the Moonlight that doesn’t feel dispiritingly familiar. Allen’s habitual productivity — a movie a year, whether he has something to say or not — has made his films something more like rituals than events. Last year in these pages Stephanie Zacharek compared going to see Allen’s annual offering to checking in on an elderly relative you hope is having a good day. A trick I’ve picked up is always to try to get such a relative to tell a story you haven’t heard before. Is it too much to ask the same of one of the world’s most distinguished filmmakers?

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Girls Against Boys

Girls Against Boys is intensely laconic, with so little dialogue it could almost all fit the 140-character Twitter max. This reticence is due, perhaps, to the film’s own confused relationship with itself. Is it a high-camp female revenge fantasy, in the vein of the far superior Teeth? Is it a psychosexual thriller preoccupied with homo-social behavior among women, in the vein of Black Swan? Or, most likely, is it a derivative distillation of various horror motifs that fails to cohere, or even to gross out? Writer/director Austin Chick intersperses college-lecture scenes (“post-feminist critiques” of Japanese animation is a rib-bruising set piece) with the rudderless revenge-mongering of Shae (Danielle Panabaker)—an ingénue-cipher with an uncanny resemblance to Judy Garland—and Lu (Nicole LaLiberte), Shae’s bad angel who looks like Emma Stone’s collagened evil twin. The obligatory lesbian kiss is checked off like a box on a clipboard, but the B-horror standbys that might rescue the film from self-serious tedium are nowhere to be found. Where are the chain saw castrations? The taut moments of imminent gore? The closest we get is a scene in which a rape enabler gets shot with a pistol through the anus—a symmetrical retribution for sexual assault and, sadly, the movie’s cleverest moment. Should we congratulate Chick (XX/XY) for the Thelma & Louise rewrite? He seems to think so.

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Civil Rights Through a Soft Focus Lens in The Help

More than just the Hollywood It girl of the moment, Emma Stone is a real actress, and in The Help, she gets an ostentatious, Oscar-baiting Big Scene in which to prove it. Stone is, to borrow a phrase from Bret Easton Ellis’s Twitter account, thoroughly post-empire—she doesn’t need this kind of relic of old-school Hollywood to show off her chops. But this is the kind of thing The Help is best at: forcing easy, organic charm to glimmer through a few layers of ancient dust.

A fast-talking, eye-rolling snarler, Stone wears a truly terrible perm to play the allegedly dowdy Skeeter, a smart but naive recent college graduate who returns to her family’s Mississippi plantation in the summer of 1962. She is shocked to discover that, in her absence, not only have her school friends become the casually, cruelly racist white establishment, but also her own beloved childhood maid (Cicely Tyson) has disappeared. Skeeter decides to write about her hometown from the perspective of the black women who work in every white household. Her ins to that world are Aibileen (Viola Davis), a dutiful maid who has a tendency to develop unusually intimate relationships with the white children she’s paid to take care of (“You’re my real mama, Abi!” a cherubic toddler cringe-worthily exclaims, the second her bio-mom is out of earshot), and Minny (Octavia Spencer), whose inability to become wallpaper/doormat while at work has cost her a few jobs, most recently and spectacularly in the home of the town’s coolly despicable queen bee, Hilly (Bryce Dallas Howard).

The Help, based on Kathryn Stockett’s best-selling novel, is so sincerely invested in the tenacity and nobility of Aibileen and Minny that to accuse writer/director Tate Taylor of pushing the dreaded Magical Negro button would be a low blow. These women are not merely the wisdom-spouting ciphers that so often exist as only devices to teach white movie characters lessons. They are that—they do actually say things like, “Fried chicken just tend to make you feel better ’bout life,” while pretty blond women look on, beaming—but they’re not just that; they’re also victims of fairly realistic character flaws, almost as much as they’re victims of circumstance.

Skeeter, of course, has her own, somewhat less urgent civil-rights battle, signified by the fact that she’s the only white woman in town with a job, while her commitment to her career guarantees her inability to get and keep a boyfriend (a “struggle” still being fought in the average romantic comedy set today). She’s led to believe things are different in glam Manhattan, but even her long-distance New York City mentor, a short-skirted book editrix played by Mary Steenburgen, is shown business-lunching with multiple men—and, pointedly, going to bed alone.

Maybe it’s because her project is partially self-interested—she’s not writing about these women to help only their careers—that Skeeter, and the film, neglect to sufficiently answer what is at one point posited as the book-within-the-movie’s key question: Why do little white girls who are raised lovingly by black maids turn into raging racist assholes once they’ve grown to run their own households?

The psychology of this query is too complicated for a film so hell-bent on jerking easy tears and capturing a wide audience. Instead, we get a fairly typical Hollywood flattening of history, with powerful villains and disenfranchised heroes. In one corner, there are contemptibly cowardly conformists like Hilly’s gang of girls and their seemingly interchangeable husbands. On the other side are outsiders of many stripes—the black servant class; Skeeter, the unglam brainiac; and assorted white matron figures who seem to have the freedom to buck the norm only because they’ve outlived their usefulness as women.

As a filmmaker, Taylor seems to be less interested in the stories of these working women than in the mechanics of storytelling—the ways in which reportage and gossip serve, er, separate but equal functions in shaping narratives. The Help is plainly a film about how talking becomes writing, which becomes activism, which turns into history. The night Medgar Evers is killed, Aibileen tries to comfort a paranoid Minny: “We ain’t doin’ civil rights, we just telling stories like they really happened”—a downplaying that rightfully makes her friend laugh. The characters are well aware of the portent of their story swapping, as is the film. The Help is able to transcend its own puffed-up self-importance in only those few moments when two people on the margins—by choice or by birth—see their own struggles reflected in the other, their individual hardships fading into a shared compulsion to fight back.

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Easy A: A Waste of Emma Stone

As far as teen comedies informed by 10th-grade English syllabi go, Easy A, partly inspired by The Scarlet Letter, is remedial ed compared with Clueless and 10 Things I Hate About You. To boost her popularity and to sex up her guy pals—and strangers’—reputations, brainy Ojai, California, high-schooler Olive (Emma Stone, confirming the talent shown in supporting roles in Superbad and The House Bunny) convinces her classmates that she spreads her legs often. But the film gives her no real adversaries to battle, except the consequences of her own mythomania—meaning Easy A can’t make much of a point about sexual double standards. Seventeenth-century Boston Puritans find their analogue in the teenage Jesus lovers/virginity pledgers of the Cross Your Heart Club, presided over by Amanda Bynes, but these are foes who no one takes seriously; Olive’s parents (Stanley Tucci and Patricia Clarkson) are endlessly supportive. What this self-anointed Hester Prynne in Juicy Couture must battle the most is the script, written by first-timer Bert V. Royal. Filled with the occasional tart one-liner, Easy A tacks on a sound message about a teenage girl’s right to do with her body as she wishes; the 88 preceding minutes aren’t much more relevant than, as one character snarks, “a gossip girl in a sweet valley of traveling pants.”

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Woody Harrelson as Leathery Roughneck in Zombieland

The zombie movie—that evergreen vessel for all manner of social and political allegory—gets stripped down to its “Holy shit! Zombies! Run!” chassis in this fitfully amusing romp directed with little ambition and even less distinction by first-timer Ruben Fleischer. Set in a not-too-distant future (Roland Emmerich’s apocalyptic 2012, set for release in November, is on the marquee at Grauman’s Chinese), in which most of mankind has gone flesh-eating crazy from a Mad Cow–style pandemic, Zombieland follows the requisite hardy band of uninfected survivors as they, like the Griswolds before them, make their way to the promised land of a Southern California amusement park. Woody Harrelson leads the charge as a leathery urban roughneck in the Snake Plissken mold, with Jesse Eisenberg (typecast, yet again, as a virginal neurotic), Emma Stone, and Abigail Breslin (the latter two playing a couple of scam-artist sisters) riding shotgun. Ho-hum zombie mayhem lurks around every bend, but the movie’s comic tone becomes increasingly strained (as does Eisenberg’s logorrheic voiceover), up to and including an indulgent movie-star cameo by a certain deadpan genius usually more discerning in his choice of projects. Who ya gonna call? How about John Carpenter?