MAGIC IN THE MOONLIGHT Review

This marks the fourth year in a row that I have seen the annual Woody Allen feature in theaters and it would be a lie to say I'm not growing fond of the tradition. Of course, there is no telling how much longer this tradition might continue as the prolific writer/director is nearing seventy-nine and I can only imagine will continue to remain as consistent for so much longer. Allen continues to defy expectations though as he continues to both craft interesting enough stories for relevant actors to embody and piece them together in rapid fashion. It is hard to even pinpoint at what stage of life Allen first put the idea we're currently watching on screen to paper, but I can only imagine he has a drawer full of premises that he pulls from every year and crafts a screenplay around yet all the while is jotting down more ideas to add to the drawer. It will be interesting to see what he leaves us with as the next few features are likely to be some of his final ones, but if there is anything particularly telling about his latest it is that the guy isn't scared of getting old. Magic in the Moonlight may be able to pull off seeming like a romantic comedy for intellectuals and even as the film slogs to its inevitable conclusion it seems Allen would have liked to convince himself of this as well, but really the film is simply another exercise for Allen, the writer, to voice his complaints about mortality, the mystical side of life and belief in a higher power. He does this with both vigorous and insightful dialogue that is conveyed through what is at least an inventive situation. It also doesn't hurt he has placed the film in what we perceive as a more innocent period of time (1928) to soften the blow of his logical observations and make them feel more farcical than forceful. I am one who doesn't mind the arrogant, slightly egotistical nature of Allen especially when it has been imbued upon as charming an actor as Colin Firth and there truly is, as is typically the case, some finely-crafted dialogue here that cuts to the heart of the conflict our central character feels, but as a film in and of itself Magic in the Moonlight feels more minor than the significance of its ideas.

Howard Burkan (Simon McBurney), Aunt Vanessa (Eileen Atkins) and Stanley Crawford (Colin Firth)
share a walk and a talk in Magic in the Moonlight
As mentioned before, it is 1928 and we are in Berlin as the famous illusionist Wei Ling Soo performs his act that includes making a full-grown elephant disappear. He is a perfectionist, he is a man committed to his craft, but he isn't Chinese. To keep even more mystery around his act he disguises himself in such a facade, but in reality he is simply Stanley Crawford (Firth). Whether in our out of his costume though, Stanley is regarded as one of the best magicians in all the land. He is also a curmudgeon who demeans his employees and anyone around him who he sees as inferior or less intelligent, which is pretty much everyone. After this performance of which we get a glimpse Stanley is met backstage by old friend and fellow magician, Howard Burkan (Simon McBurney). Burkan has ulterior motives and an interesting proposal for Stanley of which he cannot refuse. In the French Riviera Burkan has stumbled upon a mystic named Sophie Baker (Emma Stone) who has convinced the wealthy family of the Catledges that she is indeed clairvoyant and can re-connect the matriarch of the clan (Jacki Weaver) with her deceased husband. It doesn't hurt she has been able to lure the son of the family and heir to their fortune, Brice (Hamish Linklater), into her trance and he has fallen in love with her. The Catledge daughter, Caroline (Erica Leerhsen), and her doctor husband (Jeremy Shamos) aren't fooled as easily though and brought in Burkan in to debunk Sophie. Burkan has been unable to do so though and in fact, the more he watches her the more he is convinced she is the real thing and may actually have some type of power. Stanley is hard-pressed to believe there is any possibility of such a person existing and so when Burkan asks that he come and try his own hand at proving Sophie a fraud he jumps at the opportunity to travel to France if not to prove another mystic a liar but to see the woman who raised him, his Aunt Vanessa (Eileen Atkins), while leaving his fiancee Olivia (Catherine McCormack) at home just before they were to leave for their own vacation.

More than anything, what makes Magic in the Moonlight more creepy (and generally a reason of why it doesn't work overall) than heartwarming or satisfactory is the glaring actuality of the age difference between the two leads. Marcia Gay Harden plays Sophie's mother and manager and at this point in time Harden is fifty-five. Instead of sparking up conversation with her or picking her brain for the fraudulent presentations of her daughter Firth, who at this point in time is fifty-three, goes straight for the daughter, as portrayed by twenty-five year-old Stone. For the majority of the film I held out hope Firth's character wouldn't develop feelings for Stone's and for the majority of the time-he doesn't. It seems Allen only found it necessary to introduce these feelings via Sophie (who never had a father figure in her life) so that some type of connection might be built that could then lead to a more dramatic climax and even more curious conclusion. Still, the fact of the matter is that Stanley and Sophie had already developed a connection and one that didn't hinge on whether or not they felt any feelings of intimacy or love towards one another, but rather one of trust and admiration. Admiration not simply for each others craft either, but rather for who they were as human beings and for they way their brains worked. There was an understanding between them, an unspoken bond that didn't need to be solidified by complicated emotions and romance that would obviously be looked down on because Stanley is old enough to be her father or even grandfather. The point of the film, as far as I took it, was for Stanley to come to the realizations that despite his beliefs, his very strong, non-religious convictions that no one truly has all the answers and if he could just let go of the fact that life was indeed such a downer because there is nothing "more" afterwards that he might actually gain some enjoyment out of the time he does have. This is glimpsed when he becomes convinced Sophie is the real thing, a small light of hope in a world that doesn't otherwise have any, but instead of going somewhere with this idea that might feel fresh or unique we retread to the model of betrayal and its consequences as portrayed in any number of romantic comedies.

Sophie Baker (Emma Stone) convinces even Stanley that she has special powers.
That isn't to say the performances from both Firth and Stone aren't good, they are in fact what make the flimsy final act bearable and worth sitting through while spit-balling Allen's precise dialogue back and forth in the first hour so well that we are even more let down by the eventual conclusion. Firth shouldn't be someone the audience necessarily likes as he is not only a skeptic, but a man full of contempt. The only time in which we should be in awe of his nature is when he is in conversation with his aunt who is one of the few he sees on a level playing field and therefore gives her opinion more consideration than he might anyone else. He is dismissive and disrespectful to all things considered pleasant and he uses his intelligence through sarcasm to secretly insult anyone foolish enough to believe in a higher power or other world beyond what has clearly been defined and proven to exist in front of him. He is a man of science, which is fine and we understand, but the way in which he beats his mentality into the ground is almost as frustrating as Bible-thumpers knocking on your door once a day. Somehow though, Firth is able to pull it off with a certain level of charm that smooths things over while Stone, while she may or may not be a fraud, is still likable and more than pleasant. There are plenty of other things to appreciate about the film though, the cinematography is lush and gorgeous as the French Riviera is captured in its natural light and the production value feels top notch with all of the costumes and cars of the period shining through to meet Allen's impeccable standards. Allen's real message he's sending here though considers his state of being in his current stage of life. It seems the further one gets in life the more susceptible they are to thoughts of something beyond it, such as God and heaven, because they are faced more closely with their own mortality. To this, Allen still says he's not buying it, but that he understands the bliss in being ignorant to the facts of the universe and our small role in it. The lapse of Stanley into such a state is Allen's consideration of such juvenile thoughts, but the conclusion of the film only serves to point to the obvious (there is a need for balance) while never actually succumbing to such a belief or hope because you will only be disappointed in the end, something I wish he would have stuck with in his screenplay.