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Magic in the Moonlight

D: Woody Allen / 97m

Cast: Colin Firth, Emma Stone, Simon McBurney, Eileen Atkins, Hamish Linklater, Marcia Gay Harden, Jacki Weaver, Erica Leerhsen, Jeremy Shamos, Catherine McCormack

Berlin, 1928.  British magician Stanley Crawford (Firth) astounds audiences as Chinese illusionist Wei Ling Soo, making elephants disappear and appearing to materialise himself out of thin air.  After another successful show, the arrogant, rude-minded Stanley is met by his old friend from childhood Howard Burkan (McBurney).  Burkan is also a magician, and he comes with a proposal: for Stanley to travel with him to the Côte d’Azur and expose a young American woman who is posing as a medium and exploiting Burkan’s friends, the Catledges.  Stanley, who abhors fake mediums and enjoys exposing them, agrees to go.

At the Catledges, Stanley is introduced to the young woman in question, Sophie Baker (Stone), and her mother (Harden).  He pretends to be a businessman called Taplinger but he is unable to restrain his skepticism, and although he does his best to hide his true identity, Sophie proves adept at “receiving” clues as to who he really is.  Still convinced she’s a fraud, he observes her during a séance but is unable to detect any trickery.  The next day, Sophie reveals she knows who Stanley is, and she warns him that she really has a gift, and that he shouldn’t doubt her.  But Stanley is becoming increasingly besotted with her, and while he has some lingering doubts, he finds himself spending more and more time with her, despite Sophie being wooed by Brice Catledge (Linklater).

Stanley takes Sophie to see his Aunt Vanessa (Atkins).  Sophie asks to hold a piece of Vanessa’s jewellery, and when she does, she reveals information about an affair that Vanessa had, and which Sophie couldn’t possibly have any knowledge of.  Now convinced that Sophie has a gift, he determines to hold a press conference where he will admit that his previous disbelief has been overturned.  The results of a further séance reinforces Stanley’s change of mind and heart.  Later, at a ball, Sophie asks him if he has any other feelings about her, but Stanley is baffled by her questions, and she leaves, disappointed.  Things come to a head when Aunt Vanessa is involved in a car crash, and Stanley finds himself praying for her survival on the operating table.  Will he embrace his newfound regard for the unseen, or will his skepticism return in the face of such a calamity?

Magic in the Moonlight - scene

This year’s annual movie offering from Woody Allen follows on from the sublime Blue Jasmine, and in comparison with that movie, Magic in the Moonlight is more Woody-lite than anything more substantial.  It’s a whimsical tale for the most part, anchored by a Scrooge-like performance by Firth that at times skirts perilously close to complete misanthropy, but which is rescued by the sheer pomposity of the character and his outlook on Life.  Crawford’s petulant skepticism and sarcastic attitude verges on the unpalatable throughout, but thanks to Firth, and Allen’s skill as a writer, he has just enough hidden vulnerability for the audience to connect with.  However, for large stretches of the movie he’s deliberately insufferable, and it’s difficult to understand what on earth Sophie could see in him (opposites do attract, but here it’s a little too extraordinary).

With its lead character so defiantly unlikeable for so much of the time, it falls to Stone to put some warmth and heart into the proceedings.  As the good-natured ingénue, Sophie, Stone is affecting, appealing, effortlessly lively, and the complete antithesis to Stanley, her winning smile and wide-eyed features both endearing and captivating.  It’s a more extrovert performance, but with a degree of subtlety that is best seen when Sophie enquires after Stanley’s feelings for her.  Her earnest entreaties, and her reaction to Stanley’s dismissal of the notion that he has a romantic interest in her, is cleverly done, and mesmerising to watch.

However, two good central performances aside, this is still a movie that trundles from one scene to the next without requiring much of a response from the audience, or indeed, any real investment in the plot or the characters.  The plotting is predictable, and the theme of science versus religion (or at least, the paranormal) is handled with Allen’s usual surety, but there’s still something lacking, a spark, perhaps, that stops the movie from being either memorable or touching.  The outcome is never in doubt, and while Allen pulls a dubious sleight-of-hand to get there – as well as twisting Stanley’s arm mercilessly towards the very end – a less conventional conclusion would have made all the difference.  (And how many more times will Allen trot out the old May-December romance we’ve seen so often in the past?)

The supporting cast – Atkins aside – have little to do except make up the numbers, and if no other characters stand out as much then it’s no one’s fault but Allen’s, his less than absorbing approach, and lightweight direction failing to lift the admittedly unsubstantial material.  That said, there are some delicious lines of dialogue here and there (as you’d expect, even in Allen’s lesser works), and the South of France is beautifully lensed by Darius Khondji, the colours (of the surrounding countryside in particular) popping and flaring in a way that hasn’t been seen in any of Allen’s previous work.  There’s the usual round up of jazz favourites from the Twenties and Thirties, but not all the compositions fit in this time, and Alisa Lepselter’s editing often leaves scenes hanging around just those few frames longer than necessary.  It all adds up to a Woody Allen movie that feels like a stopgap before the next really good project.

Rating: 6/10 – there’s just enough here to keep audiences occupied, but Magic in the Moonlight isn’t the romantic comedy delight of say, Midnight in Paris (2011); with a curmudgeonly central character holding it back, the movie ends up feeling like a magician’s parlour trick, but one where everybody knows how the trick is done.