Stanley Crawford (Colin Firth, "The King's Speech") is an egotistical grumpy British snob who, in disguise as Chinese conjuror Wei Ling Soo, is acclaimed as the world's greatest magician. Friend and colleague Howard Burkan (Simon McBurney, "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy") visits after a Berlin show and tells Stanley of great friends on the Côte d’Azur who he believes are being scammed by an American psychic. Stanley chomps at the bit to debunk her, but when he meets Sophie Baker (Emma Stone, "The Amazing Spider-Man 2") there is "Magic in the Moonlight."
After visiting the West Coast for one of his best recent films, "Blue Jasmine," writer/director Woody Allen continues his European phase for a larky lesser effort featuring Colin Firth's best performance since winning his Oscar. It's surprising just how lightweight the film is considering that it is consumed by one of Allen's most personal fears - just what happens after we die - he even has his protagonist resort to prayer.
Stanley, whom his friend airily describes as having the 'charm of a typhoid epidemic,' is a cynic who believes his own audiences are gullible fools. Posing as businessman Stanley Taplinger, he pretends not to be unsettled on his first meeting with Sophie, who trances out and 'sees' The Orient, Chinese lettering and Germany around him. Even Howard's friends, Caroline Catledge (Erica Leerhsen, "Anything Else") and her psychiatrist husband George (Jeremy Shamos, "Taking Woodstock"), who sounded their alarm on Sophie, now profess to be just about convinced of her gift. Caroline's mother Grace (Jacki Weaver, "Silver Linings Playbook") is so taken with the girl, hoping she can connect her with her deceased husband, she's offering funding for Sophie and her mother (Marcia Gay Harden, criminally wasted) to open an 'institute,' and Caroline's thoroughly smitten brother Brice (Hamish Linklater, TV's 'The New Adventures of Old Christine') is on the verge of proposing.
When Sophie conducts a séance with Stanley observing from the side, she is not only able to raise Mr. Catledge to assure Grace she was his one and only, but levitates a burning candle, a 'trick' Stanley's never seen before and one which Howard confirms was unaided by strings or wires. He asks her along for a visit to his cherished Aunt Vanessa (Eileen Atkins, "Cold Mountain"), who raised him, and Sophie astonishes once again, reading Vanessa's secret history from a string of pearls. On the way back, their car breaks down and a drenching rain storm finds Stanley and Sophie taking refuse in the Nice Observatory where he euphorically tosses out his skepticism and declares himself a believer. But when Sophie hints at romantic feelings, he's thrown into confusion, she herself having proclaimed his fiancee back in London his ideal match.
Allen appears at war with himself here, his equating of love and blind faith fighting against cerebral practicality and atheism. There's plenty of Nietzsche references kicking about his screenplay, but his whole film is drenched in romance, the sun dappled coast of the Riviera cast in 1920's nostalgia. Firth is excellent as the disagreeable cynic who nonetheless retains our rooting interest, but he's far more well paired with Atkins, whose delicious devil's advocacy guides him in the right direction, than he is with his much younger costar. Stone is funny delivering her mystical readings but there's just not enough depth to her character to explain the ardency of her suitors. Allen's direction of scenes is fine, but his film doesn't flow, bumping along from one set piece to the next. The screenplay follows an obvious path, littered with supporting players who matter not a whit, stick figures propping up plot mechanics.
"Magic in the Moonlight" is an odd mix of deep thought and dashed-offedness. It's definitely second tier Allen, but it's a fun diversion especially when Firth and Atkins are on screen.
Wei Ling Soo has wowed audiences with his feats of prestidigitation for years. But, the Chinese illusionist is just another illusion. Off stage, he is Stanley Crawford and renown for his ability to sniff out charlatan psychics who fleece money from their rich, naïve clients. His magician friend, Howard (Simon McBurney), invites him to southern France to unmask another fake clairvoyant in “Magic in the Moonlight.”
Every year, like clockwork, we can expect Woody Allen to bring us his latest work. Sometimes, as with “Blue Jasmine” and “Midnight in Paris,” he hits it out of the park. Other times, with “To Rome with Love,” he does not even get on base. “Magic in the Moonlight” falls somewhere in between terrific and meh in the pantheon of Woody Allen movies.
As usual, “Magic…” opens with Woody’s patented simple white-letters on black background credits rolling to vintage jazz music. The first scene is of the great Chinese magician performing his brilliant illusion of making an elephant disappear. Backstage, as he removes his makeup, wig and fake Fu Man Chu moustache, he morphs into Stanley, an arrogant man who speaks of his audience as unwashed, ignorant masses. The disdainful illusionist snaps up Howard’s offer to come to the south of France - his beloved Aunt Vanessa (Eileen Atkins) lives there - and expose psychic Sophie Baker (Emma Stone).
Stanley sees through Sophie’s tricks right away, making his cynicism quite apparent as he questions the young woman. She invites him to attend a séance she is holding for Katridge family’s wealthy matriarch, Grace (Jackie Weaver), to prove her honesty. Stanley observes the proceedings with a sneer until things happen that he cannot explain. Slowly but steadily, he begins to change his mind about Sophie and comes to believes that she may be the real deal. This realization happens at the halfway point in the film so things can only go two ways: the guy gets the girl or the guy does not get the girl. Either way, the film flattens out to its expected conclusion.
Colin Firth is perfect as Stanley. He carries his air of intellectual superiority like a cloak of honor, making his sudden change of mind about Sophie too abrupt. He goes from cynic to disciple too instantly for a man who spent his life uncovering frauds. Emma Stone is sweet and innocent looking as Sophie but I did not feel any real chemistry between the two leads. Most of the fine supporting cast – which includes Marcia Gay Harder. Jackie Weaver and Hamish Linklater – are relegated to stick figure characters.
The story, by Allen of course, has the feel that he dashed it off on a weekend afternoon. When compared to the subtlety and nuance of “Blue Jasmine” (not to mention the killer performances by all involved), “Magic in the Moonlight” feels like Woody marking time and putting out his obligatory annual fare, without much heart, only whimsy.
Well, all I can say to Woody’s fans, and I am one, is better luck next year. I give it a B-.
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