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Review: Liking Woody Allen's 'Magic in the Moonlight' is almost an act of faith

Woody Allen's latest, "Magic in the Moonlight," concerns a magician (Colin Firth) trying to debunk an alleged psychic (Emma Stone).

The latest stars to drop by a Woody Allen film are Emma Stone and Colin Firth, seen in "Magic in the Moonlight." Credit: Sony Pictures Classics The latest stars to drop by a Woody Allen film are Emma Stone and Colin Firth, seen in "Magic in the Moonlight."
Credit: Sony Pictures Classics

‘Magic in the Moonlight’
Director: Woody Allen
Stars: Colin Firth, Emma Stone
Rating: PG-13
3 (out of 5) Globes

Woody Allen’s “Magic in the Moonlight” asks a question posed in many of his films: Can you take comfort in believing something that might not be true? Likewise, is it an act of faith to enjoy a movie that is in many ways lazy and mediocre? “Magic in the Moonlight” isn’t one of Allen’s thin, pathetic misfires, like “Scoop,” “Whatever Works” or “Melinda and Melinda” (a film of towering ambition and minimal effort). It’s thin but charming, thanks in part to strong casting and atypically lovely summer-in-the-South-of-France cinematography (by Darius Khondji) for a Woody picture. That might, for you, be enough.

It’s the 1920s and Colin Firth plays Stanley, a magician who, like most illusionists, doubles as a professional debunker, as well as a strident materialist. He’s hired to investigate the claims of Emma Stone’s Sophie, who has been mucking about Europe wowing people with her alleged psychic prowess. Stanley is poised to decimate her, but instead finds himself gradually starting to think she’s on the level.

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They’re also falling in love, which is less convincing. Firth and Stone are charismatic performers, and ones who, miraculously, know how to deliver Allen’s sometimes choppy non-quippy dialogue as though it was natural. (This is no small feat considering how many first-rate actors can’t do it.) And they have chemistry. But their love feels like an after-thought — a superfluous piece. At one point one of them suddenly professes his or her love and the other acts blase, and it genuinely comes out of nowhere — not because of the chasmic age gap (this is Woody, after all) but because Allen hadn’t bothered setting it up.

Emma Stone plays an alleged psychic who may be fleecing Hamish Linklater and Jacki Weaver in "Magic in the Moonlight." Credit: Sony Pictures Classics Emma Stone plays an alleged psychic who may be fleecing Hamish Linklater and Jacki Weaver in "Magic in the Moonlight."
Credit: Sony Pictures Classics

“Magic in the Moonlight” touts its maker’s belief system, which he’s been foisting on his films since “Love and Death.” In case you’ve missed it, it’s that there is no god, no after life, no point to existence, and all we have are distractions: relationships (when they’re good), movies (when they’re good) and other pleasures (which tend to be good). It can get a bit tired when he’s merely restating a position that hasn’t wavered (nor should it), which is why it’s best when he challenges them to some extent, as he does in “Crimes and Misdemeanors” (and its quasi-rehash, “Match Point”).

Here, he does throw in a useful kink: Stanley, it turns out, is genuinely happier when he’s been fooled, when he’s living what could be a lie that has him believing in a spiritual world that may or may not exist. Allen may feel that Stanley is arrogant and requires being knocked down a peg. But Stanley's grim beliefs are also Allen's beliefs, and underneath this fizzy, peerlessly light comedy is an anguish from someone who knows he'll never be happy except in spurts. He doesn't riff nearly enough on this gimmick, which is a shame:an atheist flip-flopping, however briefly, could make for inventive comedy. But the idea that we’re only happiest when we’re deluded is a dark, sad one that clouds over the sunny proceedings. Allen hasn’t put a ton of effort into “Magic in the Moonlight,” but underestimate it and it will smack you upside the head.

Read our report from the "Magic in the Moonlight" press conference, featuring Woody Allen himself.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge

 
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