Magic in the Moonlight

Movie Information

The Story:  A stage magician sets out to debunk a young woman he's certain is a phony spiritualist and finds more than he imagined. The Lowdown: A sparkling champagne cocktail of a romantic comedy only Woody Allen could make. It may be lightweight — though perhaps not entirely — but it's a little slice of cinema heaven.
Score:

Genre: Romantic Comedy
Director: Woody Allen
Starring: Colin Firth, Emma Stone, Eileen Atkins, Simon McBurney, Marcia Gay Harden, Hamish Linklater, Jacki Weaver
Rated: PG-13

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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.

 

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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).

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

 

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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.

 

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About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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15 thoughts on “Magic in the Moonlight

  1. Edwin Arnaudin

    Magicians also appear in Allen’s New York Stories contribution, Oedipus Wrecks.

    Another of this film’s many assets is that Stone and Firth prove to be naturals with the writing. Each year I get excited about new talents working with Allen and then get a little worried that they may not jive with his style. Were it a more neurotic, “classic” Allen story, they may not fit, but for this particular story, the two leads work very well.

    Wonder who he’ll work with next? I’d like to see what he and Michelle Williams could do together.

  2. Ken Hanke

    The only person I’ve seen just completely fail at neurotic stuff in an Allen picture is, predictably, Will Ferrell, whose performance — game though it is — just about destroys Melinda and Melinda. I could easily see Stone pulling that sort of thing off. I’m afraid Firth would come off as ersatz-Hugh Grant, though. I think Stone’s in the one he’s shooting now. And…Joaquin Phoenix, who is an unknown factor.

    • alexj

      I’m afraid Firth would come off as ersatz-Hugh Grant,

      Though I appreciate your use of “ersatz” in this comment, I could not disagree with you more. Hugh Grant is likeable enough. Colin Firth is a complex, nuanced, intelligent actor. Their country of origin is the only thing that you can use to connect these two.

      • Edwin Arnaudin

        Firth is no doubt the superior actor, but has he ever played a neurotic character? Even when he did screwball-type comedy in Gambit it was still very English Gentleman.

        • Ken Hanke

          I still maintain that the only saving grace in Gambit is Tom Courtenay.

          I don’t really get the ruffled feathers here. Suggesting that an actor is not suited to something is hardly saying that he’s inferior to an actor who happens to be suited to it. I wouldn’t care for Grant being cast in A Single Man either. For the record, I like both actors, but I will say that Grant has more range than I suspect he’s being credited with here — check out An Awfully Big Adventure sometime.

          • Alexj

            i must have misunderstood the intention of your comment. Ersatz means “a substitute for something”. My comment was a response to what i thought was a false equivalency between Hugh Grant and Colin Firth.

            My feathers are not ruffled, however.

  3. Edwin Arnaudin

    I like Vicky Cristina Barcelona a lot, but it took me a few minutes to embrace Rebecca Hall channeling Allen neuroses. By contrast, I think Scarlett Johansson is a superb ball of nerves in Scoop. (Why don’t people like Scoop?)

    We’ll get a taste of comedic Phoenix in Inherent Vice.

  4. Ken Hanke

    I have never, never understood why people don’t like Scoop.

  5. Me

    Oedipus Wrecks is one of my favorites wasn’t Larry David the magician in that?

    • Ken Hanke

      According to the IMDb (for what that’s worth), he was the theater manager.

  6. Mr.Orpheus

    This, though, charmed more than anything has since ABOUT TIME hit theaters and I firmly loved every inch of it.

  7. Ken Hanke

    My comment was a response to what i thought was a false equivalency between Hugh Grant and Colin Firth.

    My point is that I think Firth playing an Allenesque neurotic would be miscasting and would indeed come across as ersatz Hugh Grant.

    • alexj

      I appreciate your clarification.

      But his character in this film was certainly at least borderline neurotic. HIs cynicism and utter unawareness of his clumsy social interactions are not typical neurotic qualities in a Woody Allen film, but I believe he could use some intense therapy, nevertheless.

      Of course I am kidding here.

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