Stanley, played impeccably by Colin Firth in Magic in the Moonlight, is a man who loves a good magic trick. However, he takes serious umbrage at those that believe there’s a legitimate unseen world. A self-professed genius and slave to rationality, he cannot fathom why someone would believe one of his illusions or, worse, someone else’s could be real. Even in the face of his endless arsenal of perfectly laid one-liners, people cling to their sentimental claptraps and religion. It’s enough to make him laugh—or write a script.
Yes, Stanley is Woody Allen, or at least a version of the writer-director. Never one to deny his complicated feelings about spirituality and the afterlife, Allen has previously said that he was raised of the Hebrew persuasion before converting to narcissism at an early age. And despite making some of the most beautiful celluloid fantasies of the last several decades, there are just as many Woody Allen movies that reach for the mystical and come up with only a cleverly worded punch line.
So, it’s only fitting after last year’s more high-minded crocodile tears for the elite in Blue Jasmine that Allen returns to this never settled internal debate for Magic in the Moonlight, a light and infectiously pleasant farce that may not reconcile skepticism and faith, but certainly thinks they should get a drink when this is all done.
Beginning in the curious setting of Berlin circa 1928, we find Stanley at the height of his career as the “Chinese” master illusionist Wei Ling Soo. With this being an Allen film, magicians are of course revered as gods, but only a precious few know that the aristocratic Stanley and Wei Ling Soo are the same person. One such fellow is another magician who never quite reached Stanley’s heights: old schooldays chum Howard (Simon McBurney). And it is here that Howard visits Stanley with a most confounding mystery.
Howard has come into the acquaintance of a rich and exceedingly deferent American family vacationing in the South of France. The Catledges, ruled by sweet but fading matriarch Grace (Jacki Weaver) and her moronic son Brice (Hamish Linklater), have fallen under the thrall of a sweet-faced psychic named Miss Sophie Baker (Emma Stone). A young woman of humble breeding from Pennsylvania, she and her overbearing stage mother (Marcia Gay Harden) have all but taken over the Catledge industry thanks to Sophie’s apparent gifts, which include telepathy, fortunetelling, and general “spirit vibration” sensing.
The problem to this otherwise blatantly evident con job is that after watching her for several weeks, Howard is beginning to believe that she really is psychic! But spiritualist debunker Stanley is less convinced. Magic’s for the stage, not the home, and as Stanley aptly quips, “The only superpower in this world wears a black robe!”
But once he also meets the young Sophie, he too is soon falling under her spell. And the damndest thing of it all is that neither he nor his equally skeptical Aunt Vanessa (Eileen Atkins) can find a reason to disprove her abundantly formidable powers. Especially in the moonlight or along the sunset-lit beach…perhaps there is something to spirituality after all?
Magic in the Moonlight is a delightful parlor room game for both the actors onscreen and the audience in the theater. Playing on riffs from existing literature and tropes, there are elements of Pygmalion here or even, despite Allen’s gloomy disposition, the far more unapologetically optimistic and magical My Fair Lady. It’s slippers with a metaphysical kick when Stanley decides to take Sophie under his wing for tutelage in all things refined.
Caught in the midst of the eternal war between the two sides of Allen’s personality, Magic in the Moonlight charmingly lands somewhere between the acutely self-aware daydreams of Midnight in Paris and The Purple Rose of Cairo, or the more existentially desperate honesty of Hannah and Her Sisters and Crimes and Misdemeanors. While slighter than those above films, this picture has its own beguiling charms, particularly in Emma Stone’s eyes.
As the telepathic center of conflict in this story, all the characters revolve around Stone’s appealing personality, which constantly walks the line between humbled small town American girl and the potentially manipulative charlatan that Firth’s Stanley yearns for her to be. Admittedly, this is not the strongest actress debut in an Allen movie, and Stone struggles to maintain the contemporary setting with her modern impetuous screen persona. Nevertheless, there is an effervescent quality to her intentionally overfilled bubbliness that buoys her potentially one-note character, drawing us along with the cast into her orbit.
However, this is Firth’s picture, and he fiercely owns it as the stiffest countenance of the onscreen Woody Allen persona to date. He has the trademark wit, deadpan, narcissism, and death obsession needed to be an Allen protagonist, but he subdues it all with a brittle vanity that is entirely English. It is as if Firth’s Mr. Darcy found himself in an occultist romp and grew a slight sense of humor about the proceedings.
Of course, Firth and Stone would make for an unlikely romantic pairing in any other picture, but this is a Woody Allen movie. The opposites attract dynamic sells the relationship and the whole movie, as does the noticeable, if restrained, chemistry between the two stars. If it can work for Higgins and Dolittle, it can work here—especially when it is the young lady who does the seducing in some of the movie’s most fetching scenes.
The cast of supporting (and underplaying) characters also does a solid job of buttressing the George Bernard Shaw of it all, including Hamish Linklater as the dullard, youthful rival and Eileen Atkins as the nosy and wise, mothering aunt. As the matriarch most enthralled to Sophie’s supposed visions, Jacki Weaver has several amusing and all too fleeting moments.
But for all the inviting pleasantness of Magic in the Moonlight, the movie’s sleight of hand is so light that it somewhat strains in its 97-minute running time. Never meant to be anything more than a bewitching distraction, eventually the trance wears off near the end.
I cannot help but wonder if Allen was not quite ready to return to such airy amusements after his last picture. While his next movie—featuring a returning Emma Stone as well as Joaquin Phoenix—is already in production in the old haunts of New York, part of me wonders if the filmmaker is toying with the seeming next stop in his cinematic Euro trip: a location he got knowingly close to in Magic in the Moonlight’s German opener. In 1928.
Still, there is an undeniable attraction to Moonlight, which like all of Allen’s better comedies, creates its own kind of alchemy by simply being a smart movie tailored specifically for adults. And in that luminescence, the picture casts a temptingly wistful illusion, as crystallized when a rain-sodden Firth and Stone steal glances under a clearing sky in a quietly abandoned observatory. Abracadabra, indeed.