Magic in the Moonlight
Woody Allen, dir and script
Starring: Colin Firth (Stanley), Emma Stone (Sophie), Simon McBurney (Howard), Eileen Atkins (Aunt Vanessa), Marcia Gay Harden (Mrs. Baker), Hamish Linklater (Brice), Jacki Weaver (Grace)
Woody Allen has completed a new film, Magic in the Moonlight, and, once again, it stars a who’s who of actors: Colin Firth, Emma Stone, Simon McBurney and Marcia Gay Harden, to name a few. It’s set in the French Riviera in the 1920s, which means there’s glorious scenery and evocative jazz music playing throughout the film. Add the occasional Woody witticism and comic flourish and you have the recipe for at least a small art-house box office.
But is that what Woody wants after such hits like Midnight in Paris and Blue Jasmine? At the age of 78, one suspects not.
You’ve got to say this about Woody Allen: he’s an unyielding professional. Every year, he turns out a film—sometimes two. And for every hit, there’s usually a failure or, at best, a moderate success. Over the past decade, since he started making movies mainly in Europe, you can count Vicky Christina Barcelona, Midnight in Paris, Match Point and Blue Jasmine as hits while it’s hard to find a defender for Scoop, Whatever Works, Cassandra’s Dream and To Rome, with Love.
Where does Magic in the Moonlight fit in? Let’s consider the premise: Colin Firth plays Stanley, a star magician who, like Harry Houdini, enjoys debunking spiritualists who were all the rage in the Roaring Twenties. When his best friend and fellow magician Howard asks him to save a family who are being entrapped by Sophie, a spirited spiritualist played by Emma Stone, Stanley can’t resist the challenge.
Arriving at a lovely chateau in the Riviera, Stanley soon finds himself confounded by Sophie, who easily unmasks him as the famous magician Wei Ling Soo (his Asian stage persona). Despite several attempts, Stanley can’t figure out Sophie’s trick and when the charming spiritualist accompanies him on a visit to his Aunt Vanessa and is able to describe her hidden scandalous love affair, he is completely flummoxed.
Stanley decides Sophie is the real deal and as an unintended consequence, the profoundly cynical magician becomes happy for the first time in his life. The two get caught in a rainstorm and find refuge in an observatory, where they see the stars and actually feel the magic in moonlight.
But this is a Woody Allen movie. Eventually, Stanley has to come to his senses and return to cynicism. But something has happened: he’s fallen in love with Sophie and she has to decide whether to marry him or the young millionaire she has been casting her spell on throughout the film.
Who do you think she’ll choose—and remember this is a film by Woody Allen, where older men often get the ladies…
If this all seems like a story by a minor Scott Fitzgerald figure, you wouldn’t be wrong. In fact, Allen doesn’t just evoke Gatsby’s smart set; he also recalls George Bernard Shaw, with Stanley being a somewhat superficial version of that lovely grump, Henry Higgins.
The big question is: does the film have the fizz, the gossamer touch of true madcap romantic lunacy? Sadly, no. Firth and Stone are good together but one doesn’t see sparks as they spar with each other. Magic in the Moonlight should be a luminous experience but it’s merely good. It’s not a flop but this film will be hard to recall in a year or two.
Reviewed by Marc Glassman.