Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Woody Allen
Stars: Colin Firth, Emma Stone, Simon McBurney, Jackie Weaver, Marcia Gay Hardin, Hamish Linklater, Eileen Atkins.
Woody Allen is certainly very prolific, and he shows no signs of slowing down as he keeps churning out his eccentric little romantic comedies at the pace of one per year. His recent forays away from his beloved Manhattan and into Europe seem to have briefly re-energised him and given him a fresh outlook. Midnight In Paris was one of his best films for quite some time. By comparison with that and his recent Blue Jasmine though, his 44th feature as a director, while entertaining enough, seems a little light and frothy. The magic quickly fades.
Magic In The Moonlight stars Colin Firth as Stanley Crawford, a magician who is also the world’s greatest debunker of fraudulent psychics and mediums and charlatans. Stanley is cynical, arrogant, aloof and devoutly atheist. Stanley also performs magic tricks under the pseudonym of Wei Ling Sui, and supposedly knows all the tricks of the trade. He is hired by his childhood friend and fellow magician Howard (Simon McBurney) to come to the south of France, where a wealthy American family seems to have fallen under the spell of a bewitching and apparently gifted psychic Sophie Baker (Emma Stone). The widowed Grace (Jackie Weaver) believes Sophie’s powers, and her rather naive, love struck and foppish son Brice (Hamish Linklater) is also transfixed by her beauty and powers. Howard can’t figure out how she is operating, and enlists Stanley’s help to expose her as a fraud.
Stanley eagerly accepts the challenge. But the more time he spends in her company and watching her work, the more confused he becomes, and he even begins to doubt his own firm beliefs and logic. Stanley becomes intrigued by Sophie’s beauty and her extrasensory power. While Stanley struggles with logic and begins to question his own long held and unshakeable beliefs, a romance also develops between Stanley and Sophie. This older man younger woman dynamic is a staple of many of Allen’s films. Psychoanalysts can read whatever they like into his propensity for having his leading men fall in love with much younger women. Audiences may have been turned off Allen’s films a little of late because of his controversial and messy private life that has been splashed all over the tabloids.
Unusually there is no obvious Allen clone here, no neurotic character to voice his own insecurities and Jewish angst. Nor is there much of the usual self-effacing humour that has become a trademark of his comedies. Allen has used the world of magic, the mystical arts and hypnosis as a plot device many times before, and there is an air of familiarity to some elements of the plot here.
As usual, Allen has assembled a superb ensemble cast of actors who are keen to work with him because of his reputation of creating great characters and memorable dialogue. Firth gives a nicely sardonic performance as the doubting skeptic who begins to doubt his own certainties that there is no such thing as an afterlife. Stanley is easily one of the least sympathetic characters that Firth has played in his career. Nonetheless he is still debonair and charismatic, and his Stanley comes across like Mr Darcy with a mean streak.
Stone (from The Amazing Spiderman, Easy A, etc) has a nice bubbly and endearingly girlish quality and delivers a playful performance. Veteran Eileen Atkins makes the most of her few scenes as Stanley’s sharp tongued and pragmatic aunt. Australian actress Jackie Weaver has a small role as Grace, the family matriarch and gullible widow who has fallen for Sophie’s gift. Marcia Gay Hardin plays Sophie’s hard nosed mother.
The conceit of the older man and younger woman romance is central to many of Allen’s comedies, but here it doesn’t quite work as there is a lack of chemistry between Firth and Stone.
There are a few good one-liners scattered throughout the film, but basically the dialogue here is not as witty or as snappy as in many of Allen’s earlier classics. Magic In The Moonlight seems to follow some many themes and ideas that are familiar to Allen’s comedies, and while it is entertaining enough it is not up there with the best of his recent work like the enjoyable Midnight In Paris or the darker comedy of Blue Jasmine.
The film is set on the lavish and opulent French Riviera in the late 1920s, and the recreation of the period detail is very good. The jaunty jazz sound track is evocative and nostalgic and keeps things moving along. Darius Khondji’s superb widescreen cinematography also captures the picturesque beauty of the setting, giving the film a surface gloss.
But the pacing is a little uneven in places, and the film seems to lose its way a little, especially after the great reveal, when Allen seems to have tacked on an unnecessary romantic coda that doesn’t quite ring true. Magic In The Moonlight is not vintage Allen, but this light and frothy comedy is entertaining enough and will please many of his fans.