Magic in the Moonlight

August 30, 2014
Colin Firth in 'Magic in the Moonlight' (2014)
Colin Firth in 'Magic in the Moonlight' (2014)

Either the films are getting better or I’m becoming one of those critics who find redeeming features in unlikely places. Most reviewers seem to lose it after about 300 superhero flicks, when they finally begin to believe that someone in coloured leotards may have a rich inner life. My particular Waterloo might be Woody Allen. Having watched his movies with increasing irritation for years, Blue Jasmine seemed, disconcertingly, a little better. This resurgence continues with Magic in the Moonlight, which is far from perfect, but a big improvement on much of Allen’s work of the past two decades.

Like all Allen’s films, Magic in the Moonlight is wordy and stagey. It comes across as a hastily written fairy tale, where every twist in the plot may be predicted. Yet the action unfolds in a wryly amusing fashion. Magic indeed!

Among the familiar elements one recognises the director’s love of the vaudeville stage. The first scenes are set in Berlin during the 1920s, as we attend a performance by the celebrated Oriental magician, Wei Ling Soo, who looks like Fu Manchu’s twin brother. When the show ends the star marches off, hurling complaints and insults at the backstage staff. In this way we meet the man behind the make-up: Stanley Crawford (Colin Firth) – perfectionist, rationalist, self-professed genius, and misanthrope.

In his dressing room, Stanley is visited by an old friend, and fellow magician, Howard Burkan (Simon McBurney), who invites him down to the Riviera where a wealthy widow and her family are falling under the spell of a young clairvoyant. Howard knows that Stanley has no rival as an unmasker of phoney spiritualists and wants him to come and look into this case which has defeated his own efforts.

Even though Stanley is set to holiday in the Galapagos with his fiancée, Olivia (Catherine McCormack), he decides to postpone the trip and take up Howard’s invitation. It is, after all, a part of the world he knows well, having spent much of his childhood there at the house of his Aunt Vanessa (Eileen Atkins). Neither can he resist the challenge of exposing another humbug.

The humbug turns out to be fresh-faced young American, Sophie Baker (Emma Stone), who has won over the widow, Mrs Catledge (Jacki Weaver), and so charmed her son, Brice (Hamish Linklater), that he is proposing marriage. Stanley barges into this cosy group with the subtlety of a Mongol raider, but his plans for a swift exposure of the fraud do not go as expected.

It is, of course, love at first sight between arrogant, stuffy Stanley of Belgravia, and the alluring young Sophie from Kalamazoo. One might note that a mere 28 years age difference is no obstacle for a director with such an abiding fascination for young women. How many Allen plots centre around a cynical, middle-aged intellectual and an attractive but naïve waif? This can no longer be seen as a preoccupation, it’s an obsession.

Sophie’s tender years are more of a problem for Stanley, who reveals himself to be a supreme exponent of the ‘treat ‘em mean, keep ‘em keen’ school of male-female relations. The humour of the film proceeds from his dogged unwillingness to accept that while Olivia may be his ‘rational’ choice, Sophie has a magical hold on his heart. The gormless Brice is really no competition, despite his millions, as he believes that a girl may be won by continual serenades with a ukelele. He is the boob and bore who has a walk-on part in every Allen movie.

Stanley’s problems reside in his pessimism and his devotion to a rational, scientific outlook on life. He is always ready to lecture on the death of God or the non-existence of spirits, but deep down he wants to believe that life has a higher meaning and purpose. He has the bad habit of proselytising at length to anyone within earshot. These speeches are far too pat, and go on for too long, as Allen falls prey to his own facile eloquence.

The most portentous of subjects – the meaning of life – is submerged in a frothy brew of 20s jazz music that seems designed to remind us we are watching a comedy not a seminar. God may be dead, but Cole Porter is thriving.

Colin Firth struggles valiantly with the role of Stanley, getting through his lines in the manner of a man slashing a path through a thicket of words. For Emma Stone it’s a different matter. Although she is one of Hollywood’s current crop of It girls, the part of Sophie Baker is arguably her most interesting screen role to date. At least she is required to display some personality and wit, unlike most of the earlier entries on her C.V.

Ultimately, Magic in the Moonlight is a lightweight story with a few metaphysical additions. It has the period style, (and even the aunt), of a P.G.Wodehouse tale, but with dialogue that would have left Bertie Wooster reeling. Stanley babbles obnoxiously, while most of the other characters are cardboard cutouts. Apart from the idyllic French landscape, Sophie is the only drawcard. The camera can’t stop lingering on Emma Stone’s eyes and mouth, which seem almost too large for her face. She is disturbingly thin, but always stylish.

The major theme of this story is the gulf that exists between appearance and reality – whether it be the magician’s stage tricks, the possibility of a spirit world, or the relations between Stanley and Sophie. Like so many of Allen’s films, this will seem profound to some people, and profoundly trite to others, but at least it can be watched with a wavering smile rather than a grimace.

Magic in the Moonlight
Written & directed by Woody Allen
Starring Colin Firth, Emma Stone, Simon McBurney, Eileen Atkins, Hamish Linklater, Jacki Weaver, Marcia Gay Harden
USA, rated PG, 98 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 30th August, 2014.