Directed by: Woody Allen.
Written by: Woody Allen.
Starring: Colin Firth (Stanley), Emma Stone (Sophie), Eileen Atkins (Aunt Vanessa), Simon McBurney (Howard Burkan), Hamish Linklater (Brice), Marcia Gay Harden (Mrs. Baker), Jacki Weaver (Grace), Erica Leerhsen (Caroline), Jeremy Shamos (George), Catherine McCormack (Olivia).
The last decade and a half of Woody Allen’s career has had some remarkable highs (Match Point, Midnight in Paris, Blue Jasmine) and some spectacular lows (The Curse of the Jade Scorpion, Scoop, To Rome With Love) – with most of the rest of the films – and he makes one a year – falling somewhere in between those two screens. His latest, Magic in the Moonlight, is pretty much the definition of “middle of the road” Woody Allen. It’s amusing without ever being really funny, interesting without ever being involving, pleasant but dull, charming yet slight. I cannot say it’s a bad movie – not really – but I also cannot really say it’s a good movie. Like many Woody films of the last 15 years, it’s basically a shrug of a movie to me – something that I would easily forget if it were not a Woody Allen film.
The film is set in 1928, mainly in the South of France. Stanley (Colin Firth) – who makes his living as the famous “Oriental Wizard” Wai Ling Soo – doing fine magic tricks on stage. In his spare time, he indulges in his real passion – exposing fraudulent spiritualists, mystics and psychics. Stanley has always believed in nothing – what you see is what you get (“I think Nietzsche neatly deposed of this God business” he says). His old friend and rival, Howard Burkan (Simon McBurney) shows up one day after the show and invites him to France to see an American psychic from Kalamazoo, Sophie (Emma Stone), who has a wealthy family convinced she is the real deal. Burkan was hired to try to prove she was a fraud – but he cannot find anything in her “act” that could be described as a trick or false. But Stanley is convinced she is faking – and he’ll prove it by any means necessary. Of course, when they meet, they hate each other – so you know what that means don’t you?
The reason to see the movie is the performances by Firth and Stone, who are both charming and funny and, if you can ignore the almost three decade age difference between them, have chemistry together that works (Firth is only a year younger than Marcia Gay Harden, who plays Sophie’s mother, although his Stanley – and Allen as writer/director doesn’t seem too interested in given this great actress much to do). Together – with an assist from a wonderful Eileen Atkins as Stanley’s eccentric Aunt – they keep the movie afloat, even as it becomes clear that the film is essentially Allen going through the motions. It’s better than something like To Rome with Love – which is just a quartet of half thought through ideas thrown together in a mismatched hodgepodge – but it never really takes off either. Allen has essentially admitted that at this point of his career, he’s essentially making movie out of force of habit and routine – so we shouldn’t really expect that his every movie to be as good as last year’s Blue Jasmine. Yet, the fact that Allen is still capable of making a film like that – or Midnight in Paris – makes films like Magic in the Moonlight all the more frustrating. The film is Allen’s through and through – not many writer-directors would do a film like this in 2014, and that is somewhat refreshing. But Allen has the talent to elevate a film like this – so when he doesn’t, it’s somewhat disappointing to find he doesn’t really seem to be trying.