Film Review – Magic in the Moonlight
Magic in the Moonlight
Throughout his career, Woody Allen has continuously revisited the theme of artifice versus reality. How people perceive the universe and how things really are has been something of an obsession for him. Much like Ingmar Bergman, Allen has questioned and fretted over religion, the thought of a God, and the existence of an afterlife. But unlike his idol, Allen has handled the material with, shall we say, a more lighthearted touch? And so it is with his latest, Magic in the Moonlight (2014), that the writer/director once again takes a look at people struggling with mysticism and cold hard facts.
On it’s surface, this is a pleasant story, dealing with magic, séances, and the everyday life of the bourgeoisie (you know, the regular stuff). Continuing his journey through European cities, Allen takes us between 1920s Berlin and the south of France. We have characters wearing fine tailored suits, light flowing dresses, antique cars and fashionable bonnets. This is a time where people frequented nightclubs in tuxedos, danced to a live band, and smoked because it was the “in” thing to do. As per usual, jazz fills the soundtrack heavily. Woody Allen is known for working with small budgets, but that isn’t an issue here. The makeup, wardrobe, art design, and cinematography (by Darius Khondji) have come together to make one of Allen’s best looking films.
Within this world is our main character, Stanley (Colin Firth). Stanley is a well-established British stage magician. When we meet him, Stanley is performing his latest act as “Wei Ling Soo,” an unfortunate ethnic stereotype. Yes, during the time this story is based in, racial sensitivity was still at a low point. But I can’t help but cringe a bit seeing Colin Firth sporting – essentially – yellow face in these opening scenes. Woody Allen doesn’t include them for any larger message or purpose, other than the sake of just being there.
Thankfully, Stanley quickly sheds his costume and allows us to see who he really is: an egotistical and condescending braggart. Colin Firth plays his character toeing a fine line. Stanley is a perfectionist and quick at the mouth, he makes no effort to hide his displeasure of other people. He makes us laugh at how snarky he can be, and how he treats others as though they were lesser because…that’s just how things are. In this way, Firth is perfectly cast. Allen takes advantage of his immense likeability to create a character that constantly spits insults, but we can’t help but follow.
At the request of a friend (Simon McBurney), Stanley takes his magician talents to a family in need of help. The family is believed to be under the con game of Sophie (Emma Stone), a confessed mystic, spiritual medium, and fortuneteller. Stanley is recruited to debunk Sophie’s ruse, along with her mother (Marcia Gay Harden), before they hoodwink the family out of their fortune. The matriarch (Jacki Weaver) believes in Sophie’s ability to communicate with dead relatives, and the son (Hamish Linklater) has fallen head over heels for Sophie. Admittedly, Stanley has is work cut out for him.
The dynamic between Stanley and Sophie is a strange one. He who firmly believes in science, common sense, and a reasonable explanation for everything, pitted against her, who works in mystery, wonder, and faith. Emma Stone brings a carefree personality as Sophie, with a bright smile and her usual quick wit. They have a nice back and forth, and Allen’s dialogue keeps things moving between them. We can sense a romance developing, but that depends on how much you can buy the two having feelings for one another. Stanley treats Sophie like an inferior (in an endearing way), but he is fond of her company, and she seems intrigued by his tough outer shell. While watching them, I was reminded of the relationship between Rex Harrison and Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady (1964). If you bought those two together, you’ll do the same here. If not, well, so it goes.
While the look is beautiful and the acting spot on, this is a lesser “Woody Allen” film. This is more of a vacation getaway than anything else. Allen has visited these themes in other, better movies. We can tell where this story is headed, and the supposed “twists” are perceived from a mile away. Sure, there are some nice, fun touches, but everything doesn’t fit together as a whole. This is felt most in the third act, where Allen doesn’t find the right note to end on, leaving us with an awkward, unsatisfied feeling. He wants to finish ambiguously, but the execution fumbles to the point where it doesn’t matter how events are perceived, either way it doesn’t work.
I liked Magic in the Moonlight on a superficial level, and nothing beyond that. Like the characters in it, there isn’t much left once you pull the curtains back. They live in a world of tricks and illusion, but sadly that’s all they have to offer.