Magic in the Moonlight

by Kilian Melloy
Friday Jul 25, 2014
Colin Firth and Emma Stone star in 'Magic in the Moonlight'
Colin Firth and Emma Stone star in 'Magic in the Moonlight'  (Source:Sony Pictures Classics)

If you feel a frisson of dread at the prospect of the new Woody Allen movie, you can be forgiven. After all, last year's entry into Allen's ever-expanding filmography, "Blue Jasmine," was fantastic, and when was the last time we were treated to two good Woody Allen movies in a row?

But hope springs eternal. Unless, that is, you're talking about the main character of Allen's latest, "Magic in the Moonlight." His name is Stanley; he's played by Colin Firth; and, being an illusionist by trade, he's very much a rationalist and a skeptic.

Allen sets the film in 1928, when, it would appear, the word had an intense roseate glow and there was a slight haze over everything. We begin in Berlin, at a performance of Stanley's act (in which he's disguised himself as Wei Ling Soo, a Chinese mystic), then, after a quick diversion of London, we end up in the South of France, where Stanley has been coaxed by his childhood friend and fellow illusionist Howard (Simon McBurney). Like Stanley, Howard is a resolute skeptic and a debunker of fraudulent mediums, psychics, and spiritualists; but, Howard tells Stanley, he's met a young American woman named Sophie (Emma Stone) who seems to be the genuine article -- at least, Howard can't figure out how she does her tricks. Maybe Stanley can?

His arrogance pricked, Stanley accepts the challenge, though it means canceling his travel plans with his fiancée. He assumes a fake identity in order to catch Sophie unaware; it doesn't take long for Sophie to see right through him, though, and it takes scarcely longer for Stanley, in a flight of romantic fancy, to adopt what he's so long spurned as "magical thinking." (Did that phrase exist in 1928?) Once Stanley becomes a believer, his life suddenly becomes rich -- as rich, one imagines, as the cinematography by Darius Khondji. But is it really because Sophie has proven that there's a mysterious side to the world, one that surpasses rationality? Is the elixir of Stanley's new found happiness truly based on ectoplasm? Or is it a matter of pheromones, hormones, and dopamine? After all, love supersedes rationality, also, and does so both regularly and with the cleverest of sleights-of-hand.

"Magic in the Moonlight" stacks the magician's deck here, indulging in a fair amount of magical thinking of its own, or at least transparent narrative charting. A sudden thunderstorm? An unmanned, unlocked observatory where two soaking day-trippers can take shelter? Could there be any more facile shorthand means of summarizing the eternal conflict of reason and faith? As for Sophie's rich suitor, Brice (Hamiosh Linklater), there is a little inspiration in the casting, if not in the character. Brice is a stock figure, the fawning "logical" choice of marriage partner for the young, pretty Sophie. Rather, there's something of Rod Serling in Linklater's affect and mannerism, and that seems like a wink to fans of any genre dealing in speculations that depart from the methodical and the quantified.

This is not a bad movie; neither is it especially good. It is pretty to look at, though the patented Woody Allen zingers are in conspicuously short supply -- only a scant few appear here. The rest of the dialogue is workmanlike, little more than a barrage of dialectic; only when Stanley converses with his equally smart and caustic (but far more sunny) Aunt Vanessa (Eileen Atkins) does it feel like the characters have anything going on underneath their words. Similarly, it's only when a psychologist analyzes Stanley that one feels, for a brief moment, that there may be some sort of subtext or deeper layer to the movie. The moment is brief.

Allen knows his way around a story, and he knows how to use a camera to tell the story he has in mind, but his messages may have started to become more simplistic in recent years. Allen makes up for it with spoonfuls of sugar, but that won't fuel a masterpiece: Hence the nasty satisfaction of "Blue Jasmine," which was bitter and sharp in the best artistic sense.

That sharpness is only here in illusory form. The risk of any sort of magic is how it cozies up to itself and seals itself off - from reason, change, or the outside world. Any self-sufficient system can sidestep the problematic concern of being correct or aligning with objective reality; simply stay inside the soap bubble, and there is no objective reality. So too this film, which feels hermetic. The exchanges are little more than Allen musing to himself. The viewer may not feel invited into the conversation, which isn't especially dazzling to begin with. The result is a film with neither peaks nor valleys, a film that's neither abysmal (like "Scoop," another dip into the supernatural) nor brilliant (like "Whatever Works," or "Blue Jasmine"). For that matter, "Magic in the Moonlight" is neither comedy nor drama; rather, it's tepidly philosophical, consistently flat, trendily cranky, and predictably sentimental.

That said, it's also reassuring in following its formula. The same jazzy music serves as the score here (even an anxious rush to the hospital bops along to a jarringly sprightly passage); the same bland credit sequence opens the film, and the same arcs are traced; Allen doesn't give us any character that should have, in earlier years, been played by himself (as he did with Owen Wilson in "Midnight in Paris") but like the God Stanley refuses to believe in, Allen, despite nowhere being seen, even in proxy, is everywhere felt. There's a reason this movie is set so far in the past and glazed with such a sheen of nostalgia and it's not because that era was any more crazed with belief in angels, demons, and spirits than this one is. A more likely explanation may be this: Cozier than the fictions of irrational solace are the recollections of decades past. Allen may have little monumental left to say, but one starts to fear that he's walling himself into his memories.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.


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