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 V.23 No.33 | August 14 - 20, 2014 

Film Review

Magic in the Moonlight

Woody Allen’s 44th film casts a charming spell

Magic in the Moonlight

Directed by Woody Allen

Cast: Colin Firth, Emma Stone, Jacki Weaver

Emma Stone sees dead people.
Emma Stone sees dead people.

The key to watching a new Woody Allen film is figuring out which Woody you’re in for. There’s the fairly serious, film-literate Woody (he of Manhattan, Shadows and Fog and Match Point fame) and the frivolous, farce-loving Woody. (That’s the guy who gave us Sleeper, Zelig and The Curse of the Jade Scorpion.) After the fulfilling, full-course dramedy that was 2013’s Academy Award-winning Blue Jasmine comes the cappuccino foam-light romcom Magic in the Moonlight.

The film finds Woody back on vacation in Europe (as he has been, more or less, since 2005). It’s the 1920s, and magician/professional debunker Stanley Crawford (Colin Firth) has been brought in by his friend and colleague Howard Burkan (Simon McBurney from The Last King of Scotland) to “consult” on a particularly thorny case. Howard has been trying to unmask a young clairvoyant acting as a trance medium and channeling dead relatives for wealthy families throughout Europe. But he just can’t figure out her gimmick. Stanley is the perfect fellow to suss out her tricks. He’s one of the world’s most renowned illusionists, but since he performs under the exotic stage persona of Chinese magician “Wei Ling Soo” (a common practice of the day), no one actually knows what he looks like. All he has to do is go undercover, hang out in the South of France and expose this spiritual con woman for the money-grubbing fraud she is.

Our hero is thrown for a loop, however, when he encounters his prey, a charming, wide-eyed American girl named Sophie (charming, wide-eyed American actress Emma Stone). Her ability to dig up people’s long-buried family secrets is uncanny. And her spiritual insights don’t seem to mirror any of the standard tricks that phony spiritualists employ. It couldn’t be that she’s the real thing, could it? ... Could it?

Magic in the Moonlight seems to know its history. Allen clearly did a fair amount of research on the subject of magic and spiritualism in the early 20th century. Colin Firth’s character is a thinly veiled version of Harry Houdini, a skeptic who spent a lot of his spare time debunking claims of the paranormal. The costumes and setting are equally accurate, imparting the same lush sense of time and place that Allen’s 2011 Jazz Age romp Midnight in Paris did.

That uptight disbeliever Stanley will eventually fall head over heels in love with naive ghost whisperer Sophie is never really at issue. It’s just a question of when our protagonist will finally suspend his rigidly empirical disbelief in both the supernatural and the romantic. Firth, as we all know, can do this sort of stiff-upper-lip romanticism stuff in his sleep. Stone, meanwhile, makes a move to take over as Allen’s muse du jour. She’s enchanting, utterly guileless and fits effortlessly into the 1920’s silent-film gamine mold Allen has laid out for her. In addition, Allen seasons his cast with enough colorful background players to make things interesting along the way. We have, for example, Hamish Linklater (“The New Adventures of Old Christine”) as Brice, a sappy millionaire-in-waiting who composes love songs to Sophie on his trendy ukulele. Jacki Weaver (Animal Kingdom, Silver Linings Playbook) is quite welcome as the rich, gullible widow desperate for a connection to the afterlife. And Eileen Atkins (Robin Hood, “Doc Martin”) drops by as Stanley’s sensible aunt who takes a shine to young Sophie (and who wouldn’t?).

The stakes are very low here, and the film never amounts to more than a sweet, amusing trifle. But that hardly counts as criticism, so long as you realize what you’re in for. By turns breezy, funny and romantic, Magic in the Moonlight is lovely to look at and perfectly pleasant to sit through. Emma Stone in a flapper dress, Colin Firth in a tuxedo, a gorgeous seaside mansion on the Cote d’Azur: What’s not to like? It’s doubtful you’ll be able to recall the details of this little side trip six months or even six weeks from now. But it’s magical while it lasts.


Magic in the Moonlight

Woody Allen's 44th film is a lightweight charmer. Colin Firth plays a professional magician and debunker who travels to Southern France (circa 1920) to expose a fraudulent spiritualist. Our hero is shocked to find the charlatan is a wide-eyed American cutie (Emma Stone). Even more shocking, he can't figure out her tricks. Could it be that she actually has the ability to speak to the dead? The outcome of this period romcom is never remotely in doubt, but the cast is quite likable, and the setting is lovely to look at. 97 minutes PG-13.

 
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