Periodically a film is released that is nearly impossible to review, because of major surprises in the plot. From Laura to Psycho to The Crying Game, certain movies test a critic’s ability to convey their quality and atmosphere without giving away the secrets that producers hope audiences will pay good money to discover.
David Fincher’s Gone Girl, with a screenplay by Gillian Flynn based on her own best-selling novel, may be the classic case in point. By now millions know the head-spinning plot twists Flynn devised, but millions more don’t, and no one wants to be the jerk who blabs the ending, at the top of his or her voice, in a crowded restaurant for everyone to hear.
This is what I feel safe telling you: writer-turned-bar owner Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) reports his wife Amy (Rosamund Pike) missing on their fifth wedding anniversary. There are signs of struggle in their painfully tasteful Missouri home: a smashed glass coffee table, blood spatters in the kitchen. Officer James Gilpin (Patrick Fugit) is certain Nick has killed Amy, but Detective Rhonda Boney (Kim Dickens) isn’t quite so sure. Nevertheless, Nick’s behavior doesn’t seem to fit the pattern of a distraught, grieving husband.
Then there are the little notes Amy hid around the house, offering gnomic clues. And then, there is her diary…
I have not read the novel of Gone Girl, but I understand Flynn wrote it in chapters narrated alternately by Nick and Amy, the better to preserve the narrative surprises she had in store. The exigencies of film structure force Flynn to make a big reveal in the middle of the movie that calls the entire first half of the story into question. All the further twists in the story play off of this mid-movie revelation. Early in the film’s planning stages, Flynn gave interviews saying she would change the ending, but the finished film of Gone Girl presents the original ending more or less intact, according to every source I have seen or heard.
Many of those sources say the movie misses the novel’s tone of sardonic humor, particularly about the institution of marriage. I can’t speak to that; I can only say that Fincher has given us an armchair-gripping thriller, directed with his usual dazzling elegance. I can also say this is probably Affleck’s best performance to date, his trademark affability barely concealing successive layers of frustration and rage.
Rosamund Pike, who has danced for years on the edge of stardom, makes a strong and probably permanent bid for it here. Fascinating, inscrutable and horrifying by turns, Pike’s Amy is the bedrock of the story—bedrock that can shift to quicksand in a moment. The rest of the cast is similarly excellent, especially Dickens, Carrie Coon as Nick’s twin sister Margo, Tyler Perry as a slick defense attorney, and Missi Pyle as a venal TV personality who takes up Amy’s disappearance as her personal crusade. And that’s pretty much all I can tell you about Gone Girl, except for plot twists which, if I revealed them, I’d deserve to disappear myself.
Another master of plot twists is John Le Carre, though his methods and intentions are different from Gillian Flynn’s. For five decades Le Carre has led us down the labyrinthine paths of government espionage, presenting the bleak souls, perspectives and machinations of men and women who have lived in a shadow world too long. Moral clarity and human decency have become foreign to them, but occasionally a tiny flame of idealism flares in one of them. In Le Carre’s world, this rarely portends anything good.
Gunther Bachmann, the protagonist of A Most Wanted Man, is a Le Carre antihero in excelsis. As directed by Anton Corbijn and written by Andrew Bovell from a Le Carre novel, Bachmann (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is a bleary-eyed, hard-drinking operative, head of an elite undercover investigative unit in Hamburg. Just about everybody looks like a terrorist or a traitor to Bachmann at this stage of his life, and none more so than Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin), a suspected Chechen terrorist who has literally washed up in Hamburg for reasons unknown.
It isn’t long before others enter the orbit of Bachmann and Karpov, or are dragged into it: Annabel Richter (Rachel McAdams), an idealistic civil rights lawyer driven to help Karpov; Tommy Brue (Willem Dafoe), a shady banker who holds the secret to Karpov’s presence in Hamburg; Dr. Abdullah (Homayoun Ershadi), a Muslim philanthropist who may be funding more sinister enterprises than orphanages and hospitals; and Martha Sullivan (Robin Wright), a CIA official with her own agenda.
Bachmann indulges in his usual techniques of surveillance and kidnapping to discern Karpov’s intentions. Once he does, however, he finds himself softening toward the kid. For once, perhaps, he can actually do palpable good in the world and give someone a happy ending.
But, as I said before, this is a John Le Carre story.
Corbijn’s direction and Bovell’s screenplay are both admirably taut and suspenseful. But it is the actors you will remember, especially Hoffman. His Bachmann is a first cousin to his Gust Avrakotos in Charlie Wilson’s War, but without the optimism or jaunty wit to offset his cynicism. Bachmann saw the Berlin Wall come down, but his sloped shoulders and ever-present glass of schnapps tell us he never saw anything good rise in its place. This is one of the finest performances of Hoffman’s career, and unfortunately one of his last. It is unbearably sad to think of his untimely and senseless death early this year, at the summit of his powers.
Turning from two masterful tales, we come to a movie from a writer-director who has given us masterful work in the past, and may again, but hasn’t this time. Magic in the Moonlight is Woody Allen’s 49th movie as a director (his 50th is due out in 2015, the year he turns 80). Allen can boast a long list of masterpieces and near-masterpieces: Sleeper, Love and Death, Annie Hall, Manhattan, Hannah and Her Sisters, Zelig, The Purple Rose of Cairo, Radio Days, Crimes and Misdemeanors, Another Woman, Manhattan Murder Mystery, Match Point, Midnight in Paris. Unfortunately, he has also made some tiresome movies. Magic in the Moonlight is one of the most enervating of all, an unimaginative pastiche of Pygmalion and Blithe Spirit as filtered through Religulous.
Set in the 1920s, Magic in the Moonlight has as its protagonist Stanley Crawford (Colin Firth), an arrogant upper-class Englishman who disguises himself onstage as a Chinese prestidigitator, Wei Ling Soo, and performs spectacular magic tricks to sold-out houses in the West End. Stanley, like Houdini, claims he can debunk any spiritual or supernatural phenomenon, so he is all ears when an old friend (Simon McBurney) tells him of Sophie Baker (Emma Stone), a young psychic whose séances have an unsettling air of truth. Stanley heads immediately to the South of France, where Sophie and her mother (Marcia Gay Harden) are staying with wealthy Mrs. Catledge (Jacki Weaver) and her lunkheaded son Brice (Hamish Linklater), who wants to make Sophie his wife.
Even the least alert viewer can guess virtually everything that happens in Magic in the Moonlight from this point. What is dispiriting about the movie is that Allen either thinks he has created a bouquet of delightful surprises for us, or doesn’t care whether he has. He is obviously proud of creating Stanley, whom he presents as the pure voice of reason. Colin Firth, the world’s greatest expert in playing snooty but redeemable Englishmen, gives a crisply elegant performance, but even he can’t alleviate Stanley’s aggressive unpleasantness. Stanley combines the worst aspects of Mr. Darcy with the worst aspects of Henry Higgins, and he speaks in interminable monologues, the point of each one of which is that anyone who believes in anything beyond the physical world is an idiot.
Nothing about Stanley is likable or even believable. A true English gentleman of that period would have been horrorstruck at the thought of going on stage, let alone in ridiculous-looking Mandarin drag. It would have been much more believable to make Stanley a Cambridge don, steeped in Darwin and T.H. Huxley, who earned his atheism honestly alongside classmates such as E.M. Forster.
Except for a few bits of business involving Linklater, and for a marvelously adroit performance by Eileen Atkins as Stanley’s Aunt Vanessa, Magic in the Moonlight is crude, literal, and virtually laugh-free. As Sophie, Emma Stone is competent but unremarkable, and she has zero chemistry with Firth. Here again is one of Allen’s familiar tropes—the love affair between a middle-aged man and a much younger woman—and he makes only rudimentary attempts to make the attraction between Stanley and Sophie believable.
The other performers—even the usually excellent Harden and Weaver—are simply there. Allen is so convinced of the importance of his theme that he sacrifices everything to it. Does he really think that all religious or spiritual people believe in séances? And does he really think that having Stanley pray for the first time in his life, only to stop in disgust (“What twaddle!”), is proof of his intellectual integrity? In any case, it is apparent that the “Maybe” of Hannah and Her Sisters has turned into a NO.
The real star of Magic in the Moonlight is Darius Khondji, its cinematographer, who envelops the seascapes and gardens of Provence in an enchanting, roseate glow. The centerpiece of the movie is a soiree at the Catledges’ villa that exceeds any film version of The Great Gatsby for sheer romantic glory. It lives up, literally, to the title. I guess that is Allen’s moral: you can have Heaven here on earth, without need of an afterlife, as long as you can afford a villa in the South of France.