Note: this review is featured on the Phoenix Film Festival’s website.
Magic in the Moonlight is minor Woody Allen fare, but that still amounts to an engaging, charming work filled with eccentric characters and hopeless romance. Much of Allen’s films over the past decade have been disregarded, particularly those laced between his best features. He has this natural ability to write characters out of ideas and craft them into a representative form of himself on screen: the skeptics, the religious, the zany, the manipulative, sometimes all mixed together into a strange collection of character traits. A character in the film goes on about Colin Firth’s central character of Stanley, talking about how arrogant and pessimistic he can be, only for the audience to realize that it isn’t so much an analysis of character as it is an admittance by Allen of his own self. That makes his work singular and identifiable, even if works like this most recent adventure never feel like his most observant, focused efforts.
The film centers on Stanley Crawford (Colin Firth), one of the most celebrated magicians of his age. He performs on stage as Chinese artist Wei Ling Soo, having women, audience members, and even elephants disappear in front of everyone’s eyes. Some believe it’s real, but Stanley knows like many others that it’s all a show. There is no such thing as magic, and his friend, Howard Burkan (Simon McBurney), agrees with him wholeheartedly. As a fellow magician, he approaches Stanley to let him know that something is stumping him like nothing else ever has: a self-proclaimed psychic is sprawling the French countryside, convincing wealthy families of her powers and taking their money. Her name is Sophie Baker (Emma Stone), traveling with her mother (Marcia Gay Harden), and she appears flawless when performing her acts. It truly seems like she is a gifted medium with the ability to tell things about people they would’ve never realized themselves.
Stanley knows this is all fake. It has to be since it goes against his rational approach to life. He’s a man of science, as he attests, insisting that religion and the afterlife are archaic thoughts that Nietzsche would put to shame. Yet as Stanley observes Sophie and sees the way that she genuinely reads people’s traits and seemingly communicates with the dead, he begins to doubt himself and his belief system. His pessimism knows no bounds, along with his stubbornness to acknowledge that he could very well be wrong about everything. Firth plays the role wonderfully, embodying more than the usual, neurotic Allen type and becoming his own force. He’s a disgruntled, sad man at his core, but he externalizes all of his doubts onto others and makes them feel foolish when he is the one falling apart. His rationality is challenged by the fundamental idea of irrationality having a part in this world. It feels like a topic that applies personally to Allen.
Stone provides Sophie with an observant, mystic quality that transforms the film into something compelling. This is far from Allen’s most original work; it’s effectively a romantic comedy disguised as a drama with slight mystery. Sophie and Stanley naturally fall in love, but the last thirty minutes pack enough twists and turns to rightfully keep the audience on their toes. Eileen Atkins also provides a delightful touch as Stanley’s aunt, acting as the force of spiritual nature behind his changing mind and showing him that not everything has to make sense to change a person’s life. If something gives a person’s life meaning, does it have to be the most rational thing in the world? Great discoveries have emerged from wonky beliefs and ideas, so irrational thoughts can provide the most rational people with some emotional grounding if needed.
Magic in the Moonlight is not a dense film; there’s too much fluff and repetition in the film’s middle act to become one of Allen’s finer works. Comparisons to recent efforts like Midnight in Paris and Blue Jasmine will abound but they aren’t fair. Those are not only some of Allen’s best films from the past decade, but some of the best efforts of his long career. Moonlight is its own strange entity, backed by strong performances from the core group of (mostly) character actors. Firth and Stone don’t necessarily have romantic chemistry, but they don’t need that for the film to work. It’s not based on their romance, since it needs that tension and uncomfortable balance to emphasize their reciprocated doubt. Where the story goes wrong is when it becomes too serious about its characters and their endeavors; a hokey illusion that Stanley fails to teach Howard has a brilliant payoff in the conclusion. Moonlight shines when its eccentric, zany nature is on display, not its predictable romantic core.
Grade: ★★★½ (out of 5)