Synopsis: Set in the 1920s on the opulent Riviera in the south of France, Woody Allen’s MAGIC IN THE MOONLIGHT is a romantic comedy about a master magician (Colin Firth) trying to expose a psychic medium (Emma Stone) as a fake.
What follows is a series of events that are magical in every sense of the word and send the characters reeling. In the end, the biggest trick MAGIC IN THE MOONLIGHT plays is the one that fools us all.
eyelights: the basic plot. the discussions about mortality and life after death. the breathtaking locations.
eyesores: Colin Firth’s performance.
Sophie: “It’s beautiful.”
Stanley: “It’s transient.”
For every excellent Woody Allen film, there is a lesser one. This has held true for approximately a decade, since ‘Match Point’. Last year’s ‘Blue Jasmine‘ boasted a phenomenal performance by Cate Blanchett, making it the counterpoint to 2014’s ‘Magic in the Moonlight’.
Based on this principle, a nondescript trailer and mixed reviews, I knew going in that it wouldn’t sweep me off my feet. But it so happens that I’m a HUGE Woody Allen fan, and that I find even the mediocre ones entertaining. In fact, I never even bother to read the summaries to his movies.
‘Magic in the Moonlight’ has a terrific premise: in 1928 France, a prestidigitator is called upon by a close friend to discredit a purported mystic who has captured the attentions of a rich family’s matriarch and her youngest son. Taken as they are with her, the other family members want to prevent a swindle.
Since Stanley Crawford is one of the world’s best illusionists, he has been called upon on for such services in the past – and has always succeeded. He is determined to prove that Sophie is a fake, even though his friend, who is also a magician, has not been able to figure out how she does it.
Soon, even Stanley begins to doubt his abilities… and believe in hers.
To me, ‘Magic in the Moonlight’ could easily have been of the same calibre as ‘The Purple Rose of Cairo‘: it juxtaposes fantasy and reality, comedy and romance, in such a way that one should be able to sit back and be taken away to another world for a couple of hours, lifted by Allen’s clever dialogues.
The problem is that the dialogues are slightly uninspired: it felt as though we’d heard most of them in other Woody Allen pictures before. And, let’s face it, we probably have. The only thing I truly enjoyed about the dialogues were Allen’s ruminations about religion, the afterlife and the meaning of it all.
Although it lacked subtlety, one could sense that Allen is becoming more and more preoccupied with this subject as he gets older. He’s always struggled with the meaning of life but, as he gets closer to his own expiration date, he no doubt wonders about it even more. I enjoyed his perspective.
Thankfully, by the time he gets to these self-indulgent deliberations, the delivery isn’t too heavy-handed: it comes off as meditative more so than preachy. Colin Firth, who plays Stanley, the character the most consumed with these thoughts, tackles it with the necessary naturalism needed to convey the author’s message.
Unfortunately, he is a bloody eyesore the rest of the time. While I do tend to like Firth, his interpretation of Stanley is grating to say the least: he bellows every bloody line, as though he knew nothing of nuance. To paraphrase a more capable writer than myself, his delivery was like a brick through a plate glass window.
I just sat there dumfounded. To soften the blow, I re-imagined the performance as each scene unfolded. I tried to consider that his character was a pompous bastard – however, I couldn’t but feel that his smugness would likely mute his insufferable diatribes on anything and everything to some degree.
I was far more impressed with Emma Stone, whom I’ve seen in very few movies. While her Sophie comes off as a flake in many instance, Stone delivers that just right. When Sophie delves into more serious matters, however, Stone shines brighter, making her seem quite real – especially compared to Firth’s Stanley.
And yet, I’m not entirely convinced that Stone was the right choice, even if she was quite good. I suspect it’s just that I could imagine it done better. Looking back, I can’t help but wonder what a young Mia Farrow would have done with this role – she was absolutely terrific with Allen’s material. Like none other.
The rest of the cast was quite excellent, naturally, but if anything impressed me in this picture, it was the setting. I don’t know much about France in that era, but everything appeared genuine to my eyes. The vistas were absolutely gorgeous, as was the mansion in which most of the story takes place. It’s eye-candy.
Had the dialogues been fine-tuned slightly, Firth replaced with someone appropriately smug-yet-charming (like, let’s say, Pierce Brosnan), then I suspect that ‘Magic in the Moonlight’ would have become a top tier Woody Allen picture. Unfortunately, this particular iteration falls slightly short of this mark.
And yet, while there are few surprises in store after 50 years into his film-making career (any of us who have seen many of his films can see where they are headed well before the end), Woody Allen still retains some of his magic. Given that he’s in the twilight of his years, that’s particularly impressive.
Date of viewing: August 17, 2014