Magic in the Moonlight Written and directed by Woody Allen; with Colin Firth, Emma Stone, Eileen Atkins, Simon McBurney, Marcia Gay Harden, Hamish Linklater, Jacki Weaver
It’s been a long time since Woody Allen has made two good movies in a row; now, a year after “Blue Jasmine,” comes the very different “Magic in the Moonlight,” the most enjoyable comedy Allen has directed in years (and I say this as someone who is not a major Allen fan). The film has its share of problems: the plot stumbles in places, and some of the supporting characters are sloppily crafted (while others disappear in a peculiar way). But “Magic in the Moonlight” has charm, which has not always been the case with Allen’s later comedies.
I’m not surprised that this film was not entirely well received in America, nor that, though set on the French Riviera, it did not debut at the Cannes Film Festival, as did some of his other recent pictures. The reasons why I like “Magic in the Moonlight” are precisely the reasons why others disliked it: Something about it seems old-fashioned, and not because Allen tells a story that takes place in the 1920s – a decade to which he gives an artificial and even theatrical aura of myth.
Those who study the ideas in Allen’s films – an endeavor whose seriousness sometimes strikes me as excessive – will find that “Magic in the Moonlight” touches on themes he has explored many times before: Does life have meaning, or are we simply born, live, and die? Does human existence have a dimension that is not rational, and what kind of random, elusive, fateful role does that dimension play in our lives? But the movie also examines another question, far more rare in Allen’s films, which have always suffered from a shortage of emotion. That question is the importance of emotion in life, of which Allen takes a rather gloomy view. Of course the subject is handled with considerable irony, but even when the movie seems to be mocking its hero, especially in the final scenes, it also treats him with a certain sympathy – another rare trait for an Allen picture.
All these issues come up through a tale of supernatural occurrence, which we have also seen in some of Allen’s earlier pictures (“Alice,” “Scoop,” “You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger”). Allen uses this story as the basis for a romantic comedy, and this time, it is a genuine romantic comedy – not a forced imitation of one like some of his earlier pictures.
Allen has always loved popular culture of days gone by. His movies – including this one – often have soundtracks of songs from the 1920s and 1930s. “Magic in the Moonlight” seems like his attempt at a comedy in the style of Noel Coward (one of whose best-known comedies, “Blithe Spirit,” was also about the supernatural), with an added sprinkling of allusions to the romantic comedies of classic Hollywood. The dialogue is unusual for Allen: It isn’t delivered at breakneck speed and includes few zingers. Those expecting one joke to follow another are in for a disappointment. This is well-written dialogue with a literary and cultural hue, and it is what gives “Magic in the Moonlight” its distinctive ambience.
More than any other film, Allen’s new movie reminded me of “The Lady Eve,” Preston Sturges’ 1941 comic masterpiece, which starred Henry Fonda as the man sent into a tailspin by his encounter with a clever con woman, played by Barbara Stanwyck. Colin Firth’s lead role in “Magic in the Moonlight” sometimes brought Fonda to my mind; too bad that Emma Stone, charming as she is, does not have the mature, razor-sharp sophistication that Stanwyck had in Sturges’ movie. (If we really want to, we can even see “Magic in the Moonlight” as subtly influenced by Allen’s favorite director, Ingmar Bergman, who occasionally included magicians in his films.)
Firth plays Stanley Crawford, a successful magician who in his shows makes an elephant vanish, transports himself from a coffin to an armchair, and poses as a Chinaman called Wei Ling Soo. Stanley, who knows that his shows are all about tricks, not actual magic, has another area of expertise: he likes to expose charlatan psychics. Howard (Simon McBurney), a less successful fellow magician, asks him to help a wealthy American family that has gone to live in the south of France and fallen into the clutches of a young medium, Sophie Baker (Emma Stone), and her ambitious mother (Marcia Gay Harden).
Sophie has promised to hold séances that will allow the mother of the family (Jacki Weaver) to communicate with her late husband. Howard suspects that her real goal is to get a foothold inside this rich clan, and indeed she has already won the affections of Bryce (Hamish Linklater), the foolish young son, who has even asked her to marry him. Howard asks Stanley to come to the estate, disguised as a respectable businessman, and unmask Sophie as a fraud. But matters turn out not to be that simple, and Stanley, an atheist who follows the dictates of reason in every part of his life, including romance, has to grapple with the possibility that there may be things he cannot grasp or understand.
It is, of course, possible to see Stanley as an alter ego for Allen himself, who has more than once declared his disbelief in anything beyond our ordinary lives; when asked in an interview for Haaretz what he thought about death, he claimed that he was against it. Allen knows that his art is all about tricks and deception, but he also knows that, when luck is on his side and all the circumstances are right, there is something that transforms all those ploys into art. However pretentious, tedious and even ridiculous Stanley may be, something about him represents that understanding.
Colin Firth does very good work; his charm shines through his character’s disagreeable qualities. Kudos are also due to veteran British actress Eileen Atkins as Stanley’s aunt, a kind of mentor on life and love, whose wisdom helps the plot on its way (her appearance in the movie’s final scenes is a masterful display of timing and British understatement).