Silver Screen: Magic in the Moonlight **
Say what you will about Woody Allen, what you think about Woody Allen says a lot about you. Allen is a curiosity of psychology— for many reasons, a lot of them pretty obvious— but not least because he and his attendant filmography construe a kind of living Rorschach test.
You can love the nonconfrontational silliness of his squeaky-clean standup act and early comedies like Take the Money and Run and Bananas, the ribald absurdities of post-sexual-revolution farces Sleeper and Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex, or the soft charms of his jaunty, mannered period pieces like Sweet and Lowdown and Midnight in Paris. Brooders can dig the existential satire of Deconstructing Harry or the self-consciously dour knockoffs of cerebral European dramas. Maybe you’re put off by Allen’s mid-career shift toward morose family melodramas like Interiors and September, or tire of the stammering and the repetition and the eloquent nastiness.
Or maybe you just find Woody creepy. His deeply troubling personal history is understandable cause for a boycott; even in the best-case scenario, he sets an all-time world record for Most Smoke Where There Is No Fire.
I prefer the more positive— maybe Panglossian— approach that an artist should be valued according to their best work. Ignore the rest. It’s not as though to watch Annie Hall you must first pay the toll of sitting through Curse of the Jade Scorpion. Allen has released a film every year since 1982, almost reflexively. It’s his process. The late-period gem Blue Jasmine might not have existed without the creative momentum that necessitated the frivolity of To Rome with Love or the abject stinker Scoop. Consistency is a reasonable sacrifice for the reward of occasional brilliance.
To that end, Magic in the Moonlight is a kind of pleasant obligation. The film lacks immediacy or traces of real inspiration, but it’s charming enough, like an amiable stranger whose good humor helps pass the time during a mandatory social engagement. It’s the cinematic equivalent of small talk.
Colin Firth stars as Stanley, a magician who performs in the kind of garish, stereotypical Orientalist drag that was still acceptable at the tail end of the Roaring Twenties. Stanley is also a renowned skeptic and dedicated atheist who sidelines as a debunker of spiritualist charlatans. His Fu Manchu garb serves a dual purpose: It not only lends faux exoticism to his act, it also disguises his face so that he’s able to infiltrate the world of fakers and frauds.
Stanley’s old pal and rival illusionist Howard (Simon McBurney) presents him with an exciting challenge. A wealthy friend of Howard’s has fallen under the spell of cutie-pie psychic Sophie (Emma Stone), and the family’s heir, lovelorn Brice (Hamish Linklater), has pledged to marry her and share his fortune. Howard was unable to prove that Sophie’s supernatural talents were a moneymaking ruse, so he asks Stanley to visit their country estate in the guise of an interested stranger and reveal her as a fraud. But when Stanley can’t find any trickery behind Sophie’s clairvoyance, it opens his eyes to new possibilities— including big feelings for the little medium.
Magic in the Moonlight’s greatest asset is Firth, who is a fine match for Allen’s acerbic curmudgeon archetype. He has great fun tossing off caustic quips like “Autographs are for mental defectives” or the more broad dismissal, “It’s all phony, from the séance table to the Vatican and beyond!” But aside from Stanley and his charming, elderly aunt (Eileen Atkins), most of the characters spend their time directly discussing their motivations and delivering stilted lines of exposition, all while lounging around gorgeously designed sets and beautifully photographed scenery. Linklater is goofily charming as a wealthy dope who compulsively serenades Sophie with his ukulele, but he’s onscreen briefly. At least he’s better served than Stanley’s poor plot device of a fiancée (Catherine McCormack), who’s saddled with the stiffest of the movie’s many pained lines when she gamely tries to deliver the improbable sentence, “You’ve said it yourself several times, Stanley, we are a match made in heaven.”
The movie might still work if there were any chemistry between the two leads, who are separately appealing— emphasis on “separate.” The age disparity is certainly a problem, but not one quite as insurmountable as the absolute lack of any reason for Sophie to have interest in a cold, unfriendly stage magician born just after the end of the Civil War. A key plot twist late in the movie— one that should come as little surprise to anyone familiar with Allen’s worldview— only makes her attraction less likely in retrospect.
This time around Allen aims for pleasant frivolity but achieves, at best, only a lack of unpleasantness, making the title unfortunately ironic. There’s not much magic in anything this programmatic.
It’s okay, Woody. Maybe you’ll get ‘em with your forty-sixth movie.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.