It’s that time of year when we get our annual Woody Allen film, which means it’s also that time when a certain batch of critics crop up to complain about it. I suspect they look forward to this annual event just as much as those of us who actually like Allen’s films do, if only for the chance to lodge the same complaints they did last year. (One wonders if they realize that their yearly kvetch-fest is just as much — or more — the “same old thing” as anything Allen has offered.) Leaving the naysayers to their own peculiar amusement, let’s look at Allen’s latest, Magic in the Moonlight, which is as delightful a confection as one could hope for. It is also a film that has increasingly grown on me since I saw it on Saturday morning. I have gone beyond liking it to liking it an awful lot — and I suspect I’m on my way to loving it. There really is some kind of magic here.
Allen has turned his attention here to a subject he’s visited before — magicians. We saw flashes of this in Stardust Memories (1980), and Allen himself played a stage magician in the massively underrated Scoop (2005). Here, he’s focused his attention on a 1920s illusionist Wei Ling Soo, who is in reality Stanley Crawford (Colin Firth spoofing his own trademark stuffy Brit) in Chinese makeup. Ill-tempered and very full of himself, Stanley detests spiritualists — in part, one suspects, because he’s jealous of being incapable of believing that there’s more to the world than meets the eye. As a result, it’s easy for his friend (and fellow magician) Howard Burkan (Simon McBurney) to convince him to go to the Côte d’Azur to unmask a spiritualist named Sophie Baker (Emma Stone), whose presumed fakery has completely defeated Howard’s efforts to debunk her skills. Sophie — and her ambitious mother (Marcia Gay Harden) — have completely convinced wealthy Grace Catledge (Jacki Weaver) of her authenticity, while Sophie’s other charms have snared Grace’s vapid son, Brice (Hamish Linklater).
The problem from Stanley’s point of view is that Sophie throws him off from the very onset by knowing things about him she couldn’t possibly know. It’s not even very hard for her to penetrate his guise as Stanley Tapplinger and peg him as Wei Ling Soo. But even with this, and even with his — and Howard’s — complete inability to find the fraud in her seances, Stanley remains resolute in his belief that she has to be a fraud and that people who believe in things like spiritualism and religion are merely deluded boobs. Of course, what he hasn’t factored in is the appeal of Sophie herself — or the possibility that he might experience some magic himself, though not necessarily of the kind Sophie purports — and indeed seems — to have. Saying more about the plot would spoil some of the initial fun and possibly some of the film’s charm.
Of course, it’s not just stage magic that is familiar territory for Allen here. The whole question of whether or not there is anything beyond this world shows up time and again in Allen’s work — and often gets a more sympathetic take than might be expected from an avowed nonbeliever like Allen. There are, for example, clearly spirits in A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy (1982) and fantastic occurrences in films like The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985), Alice (1990), Shadows and Fog (1991) and Scoop are taken at face value. This, however, may be his most personal exploration of the idea (though he’d probably deny it). It is certainly his most fully developed take on the subject. Beyond this, we have Allen’s fascination with the past — not to mention a glorious array of 1920s jazz and dance band music on the soundtrack.
There are also some intriguing departures — or previously untapped influences — here. Large chunks of the film have overtones of Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion — notably the Henry Higgins-Eliza Doolittle relationship of Stanley and Sophie, something made more apparent with the presence of Eileen Atkins as Stanley’s aunt taking on the character of Higgins’ mother (some of her complaints about Stanley’s behavior are almost identical to Mrs. Higgins’ about her son). I wouldn’t take this too far, but it’s there — just as there is a good bit of Tennessee Williams’ Blanche DuBois in Cate Blanchett’s character in last year’s Blue Jasmine. In both cases, it’s an influence with a distinctly Allenesque tone.
In the end, though, Magic in the Moonlight is a gloriously giddy romantic comedy made for adults. It’s a perfectly created confection that’s buoyed by the chemistry between Colin Firth and Emma Stone — with pleasing toppings from a fine supporting cast. And it is perhaps the most gorgeously photographed film of the year (the fourth Allen film shot by Darius Khondji). I’ll add that it’s also the best thing in theaters right now — and if you listen to the grumbling of the usual suspects, it’s your loss. Rated PG-13 for a brief suggestive comment and smoking throughout.