Comedy Drama

A Film Review Demystified: Magic in the Moonlight

August 1, 2014Ben MK

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Full moon follies...

If you were to compile a list of all the directors in Hollywood who are worthy of the title "auteur", chances are that a) it would be a short list and b) Woody Allen's name would be somewhere near the top. The prolific 78-year-old writer/director, who's been churning out films at the rate of roughly one a year for much of his five-decade-long career, is best known for his comedies, although he's not averse to creating a little drama now and again. And after 2013's melancholy Blue Jasmine, it's almost a relief that Allen has returned to considerably lighter fare with Magic in the Moonlight.


Like Bullets Over Broadway and Midnight in Paris before it, Magic in the Moonlight transports moviegoers back to a place in time that Allen clearly harbors great nostalgia for — the roaring twenties (1928, to be exact) — where we're introduced to Stanley Crawford (Colin Firth), a successful British stage magician who dazzles audiences as his alter ego, Chinese illusionist Wei Ling Soo.

With his act, which involves making an elephant disappear into thin air and sawing an assistant in two while dressed in full Oriental garb, Stanley has audiences worldwide convinced that magic is real. But ironically, Stanley himself is no true believer. In fact, he's quite the opposite — a skeptic and a hardened cynic — which is why his childhood friend and fellow magician, Howard (Simon McBurney), seeks him out one night, following a rousing show in Berlin.

Howard presents Stanley with an intriguing predicament: one involving the well-to-do Catledge family, whose matriarch, Grace (Jackie Weaver), and son, Brice (Hamish Linklater), have fallen under the spell of an American, Sophie Baker (Emma Stone), claiming to be a bonafide spirit medium. Howard believes otherwise, but the problem is that he hasn't been able to conjur the proof, so he asks for Stanley's help in debunking Sophie's mystical abilities.

But when Stanley arrives at the Catledges' Côte d'Azur estate, he's genuinely taken aback — not by the picturesque French scenery (gorgeously shot by Midnight in Paris cinematographer Darius Khondji) or by Sophie's awkward yet graceful allure (which explains why Brice has been ardently practicing serenading her on his ukulele), but by her eerily accurate insight into his carefully-guarded personal life. It's enough to cause him to question his own life philosophy. Could there really be such a thing as magic? The more time he spends with her, the more the seeds of doubt — concerning his own fervent disbelief in all things otherworldly — begin to grow.

Naturally, being a Woody Allen picture, there are certain expectations that come into play the moment the opening credits start to roll, such as the assumption that lighthearted romance will percolate between Stanley and Sophie. And not to spoil any surprises, but Magic in the Moonlight is a wistful Woody Allen film through and through (and all that that entails). From its speakeasy-listening soundtrack and wry humor to the neurotic thoughts brewing in the mind of its protagonist, all the tried-and-true hallmarks of Allen's filmmaking are most definitely present and accounted for.

That includes a first-rate cast as well, especially the film's two leads. As the delightfully doe-eyed Sophie, Stone is an enigma to both Stanley and us, the audience (at least until the film's denouement), fully living up to being the "vision" that Brice describes her character as. And likewise, Firth is charming (in a caustically British sort of way) as Stanley, a pompous man who's lived his life by the letter of logic and rationality and who ends up discovering his sense of humility. If not for them, it would be unfitting to use the word "magic" in the movie's title.

The Bottom Line Like a relaxing getaway on the French Riviera, Magic in the Moonlight is beautiful to take in and not at all taxing on the mind. It's a true marshmallow of a movie: a light and fluffy morsel (of "rom-com à la Woody Allen") that melts in your mouth as soon as you bite into it. And though that may make it sound trifling, sometimes that's all you really need. After all, it's Allen's 47th film — they can't all be full-course meals.  Ben Mk

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