Magic in the Moonlight Review

Woody Allen’s latest sees Colin Firth attempting to debunk Emma Stone’s clairvoyant powers.

The emergence of a new Woody Allen film is a reminder of mortality: a whole year has already passed, and chances are you’ve accomplished less than Allen himself. It’s also a call for the same criticisms to reappear, namely that the 78-year-old’s output is increasingly the same but set in a new European city. For better or worse, Magic in the Moonlight won’t be dispelling those complaints as it possesses a title and plot that could only be more Woody Allen-y if it was called Magic in Manhattan. It’s even set in 1928, for little reason other than to include one of his trademark jazz soundtracks.

Allen’s lifelong obsession with magic – and particularly the craft’s showmanship– has featured in at least 10 of his films. However, Magic in the Moonlight is his first with two immersed in the occupation, enabling them to develop a competitive (and romantic) edge. At first we see Wei Ling Soo, a Chinese illusionist who steps into an upright coffin and emerges from a chair on the other side of the stage. Although the crowd applaud enthusiastically, they miss his greater trick backstage: he removes his makeup and is revealed to be a boisterous Englishman called Stanley Crawford (Colin Firth). It would perhaps be offensive if it wasn’t so ridiculous.

Stanley is unlike Allen’s typical leads – or, let’s face it, Allen ciphers – in that he exhumes confidence, as if his loquacious mannerisms are born more from tranquility than nervous energy. Basically, Colin Firth is doing Mr. Darcy, if Jane Austen was obsessed with debunking rivals in the spiritual business. Next on Stanley’s list is Sophie Baker (Emma Stone), a clairvoyant who he assumes is a fraud because, well, she claims to be a clairvoyant. (And also because her name rhymes with “faker”, which gives you a sense of the film’s gentle humour.) When Sophie accurately reads into Stanley’s background and delivers a somewhat convincing séance, he starts to wonder if she is in fact gifted. Could he also be wrong about religion and, dare he say it, love?

Strangely, Stanley doesn’t take much convincing to fall under Sophie’s spell, even though he’s supposedly a lifelong atheist. This is as the script rushes into a more conventional – and less engaging – middle act whereby Stanley and Sophie form a tight bond. Their pleasant, aimless conversations aren’t just Allen on autopilot, but romcom on autopilot. Luckily, Firth and Stone possess a knack for Allen’s snappy dialogue and screwball tone. The lush setting of the French Riviera certainly adds to the warmth, with Darius Khondji’s cinematography conjuring up its own hex: an intimate surrounding full of greenery, like the magical forest in A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy.

Magic in the Moonlight is the kind of small story that would usually fit into one of Allen’s short stories or subplots – perhaps one of the segments in To Rome with Love. It’s down to Firth and Stone to carry the film, and I’m sure they were delighted to be working with Allen. Actually, it isn’t so much that the characters fall in love with each other, but they discover a mutual passion for Allen’s universe. It’s the kind of cinematic magic that’s too easy to debunk, but worth playing along with for 96 minutes.

Nick Chen

Updated: Sep 17, 2014

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