Woody Allen’s directorial career can be described as nothing less than industrious. While some would agree with this term due to his ability to “churn” out a movie year after year, I choose to use it because of his ability to diligently construct such beautiful films that always build towards something truly worth thinking about. In fact, Allen even appeared not as a director but as an actor in John Turturro’s film Fading Gigolo, released earlier this year. This industriousness is something unmatched by any filmmaker working today.
Magic in the Moonlight is Allen’s latest film and the 39th feature length film he has written, directed, and released within a year of his previous film. This uninterrupted string dates all the way back to 1977’s Annie Hall! Of course, some of these films are stronger than others, I hesitate to call any of them failures. On a Podcast interview with Josh Horowtiz, Allen confesses that he is always displeased with the final product but that “if you just keep working, you’ll have your share of good stuff over the years.” Advice-wise, it doesn’t get much more simple and sweet than that and as movies go, they don’t get much more simple and sweet than Magic in the Moonlight.
Following last year’s tragically comic Blue Jasmine with a tour-de-force performance from Cate Blanchett that won her an Oscar, Magic in the Moonlight has a far more breezy and light tone. Set in Europe in the late 1920s, Colin Firth plays Stanley, a tightly wound and cynical magician who performs in disguise as the mysterious illusionist of the orient, Wei Ling Soo. Stanley is excellent at his craft and has made a habit in his spare time of exposing false mystics and people claiming to be psychics. One such character is a young American woman hired by a wealthy widow Grace Catledge (Jackie Weaver) in the south of France to help her contact her dead husband. When Stanley’s friend Howard (Simon McBurney) asks Stanley to accompany him to the Catledge estate in order to judge the authenticity of this so-called medium, Stanley takes the challenge. Unexpectedly, Stanley is taken off guard by the allure and inexplicable talent of this clairvoyant beauty named Sophie (Emma Stone). The film spends its remaining time building an unlikely bond between the two as Stanley begins to doubt his certainty in the non-existence of the spirit world. The relationship between Stanley and Sophie is further complicated by the relentless wooing of Lady Catledge’s wealthy and persistent son, Brice (Hamish Linklater) who promises Sophie a life showered in luxury.
On the surface, Magic in the Moonlight is a simple love story and while it certainly is that, there is also a more serious story beneath the surface about skepticism and its role in the concept of existence. Stanley is so abruptly tugged back and forth between the joys of fantasy and the doldrums of certainty that it becomes clear that Allen himself as writer/director may be using this film as a somewhat veiled exploration of his own existence. The writing at times has a ring of Mark Twain in it especially in its tongue-in-cheek assault on hypocrisy and ease in defrauding the foolish. These serious subtexts, however, are quite subtle; this is an entirely sweet film overall.
And a beautiful one as well. Allen’s photography of the Southern region of France is absorbingly beautiful. Full of sunsets, landscapes, and lush picturesque locations, the setting comes alive and functions as a character of its own. As usual, the acting is crisp and alive. Firth’s bravado as a stubbornly conceited Englishman is impeccable and enjoyable and Stone’s appealingly goofy American psychic is charming. The element that is so curiously minimal, however, is magic. Of course the magic does refer to the metaphorical sense of connection between the leads, but in a film with so many magicians as characters, I expected more of Allen’s trademarked prestidigitations! The film opens with Firth’s Wei Ling Soo performing one of his illusions, but that is simply to establish him as an expert in the trade. I would have also liked to see some of the defrauding and debunking of con-artist illusionists that Stanley so often brags about. Still this is another well crafted entry into Allen’s immaculate resume and Stone appears to be his next go-to leading lady as she is already cast as the lead in his next project. This is a slighter movie than his previous effort, but it is not without charisma! B+
Magic in the Moonlight is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 1 hour and 40 minutes.