Magic in the Moonlight

Movie Review #865

“MAGIC IN THE MOONLIGHT” IS CLEVER, CREATIVE, BUT INFERIOR TO LAST YEAR’S “BLUE JASMINE”.

★★½
By Alexander Diminiano

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Released July 25, 2014 (limited)
Released August 15, 2014 (nationwide)
Comedy, Drama, Romance
Rated PG-13 (contains an instance of suggestive dialogue)
97 minutes

“There is no real thing! It’s all phony! From the séance table to the Vatican and beyond!” – Colin Firth as Stanley in “Magic in the Moonlight”

The director’s chair is an opiate to Woody Allen, except it doesn’t kill him; it keeps him alive. Often times he sits up straight in the chair. Sometimes he slouches. “Magic in the Moonlight” came because Allen was tired of sitting up straight. He’s 78 years old, and after last year’s “Blue Jasmine”, the question isn’t “why take a break?”; it’s “why not?” So often the director has used movies as a way of taking a breather. Unless Allen is actually sitting up straight and pouring his heart and soul into the film, he no longer seems to be treating the movies as an art. After nearly half a century in the movie business, during which he’s made 45 movies, filmmaking has instead become a reflex for him.

“Magic in the Moonlight” is only a minor slouch. The one-liners are there. In fact, they’re all over the place. They just don’t fit in with the dialogue that surrounds them. Around halfway through the movie, there’s even a scene that completely trails off into a hollow conversation about the mystery of god, or lack thereof. And while the story is very, very creative, I’m not sure whether Allen’s first step was writing it as a screenplay or as a set of one-liners which he would later fit into the screenplay. There’s so many one-liners dealing with the metaphysical world that much of the film’s midsection is composed of useless and confusing conversations for the sake of fitting them all in. I believe Kant, Nietzsche, and Plato were all name-dropped at one point or another, as well.

My major sentiment over “Magic in the Moonlight” is what’s sandwiched between the film’s opening and closing acts. I have trouble not applauding the story here. Our hero is Stanley (Colin Firth), a Brit who performs magic shows as his Chinese alter ego Wei Ling Soo. (Without a doubt, this is a reference William Ellsworth Robinson, a New York magician who traveled to Europe and performed as Chung Ling Soo.) His appreciation is more from the ego than the audience. But there is one special trick that sets him apart from everyone else. Meanwhile, our heroine is Sophie (Emma Stone), an American belle who can supposedly read minds. She encourages Stanley to debunk her abilities, but as much as he wants to think she’s a fraud, he’s only amazed by her abilities, and her charming personality, the more time he spends with her.

It’s the execution of this old-fashioned romcom that falters. The average Woody Allen movie is fun because while it’s predictable, none of the oncoming events are foreshadowed. “Magic in the Moonlight” may be great fun at times, but it foreshadows way too much of what’s up ahead. By the time we get to the ending, though, things are more than just expected. The final scene left me with a smile, and it’s definitely one of the most clever endings in any Woody Allen movie.

“Magic in the Moonlight” sets the stage in 1928, in the rural south of France. It’s like “Midnight in Paris” without the metropolitan tone that made that movie so enchanting. Though even when the story lacks awe, “Magic in the Moonlight” is still a gorgeously cinematic movie. The 2.35 : 1 landscapes, filmed by Darius Khondji, are nothing short of visually arresting. This matches the nostalgic pitch of the costume designs, and of Emma Stone’s performance, evocative of Vivien Leigh. She and Firth give off impressive chemistry as the onscreen couple.

Woody Allen’s four most recent movies have been a rickety track. “Midnight in Paris” (2011): outstanding. “To Rome with Love” (2012): forgettable. “Blue Jasmine” (2013): terrific. “Magic in the Moonlight” (2014): creative. That’s using the first words that come to mind. “Magic in the Moonlight” isn’t nearly as forgettable, nor is it as awkward, as “To Rome with Love” was. It’s a well-planned movie, but not the most well-executed. The film’s 20-minute ouverture is side-splitting and sets up the movie rather cleverly. Its 20-minute finale is also outrageously funny and brings the movie to a superb close. It’s the near-hour in between that the script seems to be written by an auteur who has turned to the profession of vagabondry, wandering around a repetitive story and occasionally stopping for a good laugh.

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