‘Magic in the Moonlight’ is Woody Allen By the Book

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CHICAGO – After last year’s powerful “Blue Jasmine,” writer/director Woody Allen’s trajectory seemed destined toward another film masterpiece, but “Magic in the Moonlight” isn’t it. Colin Firth and Emma Stone are an unlikely pairing in this seen-it-before-Woody film trifle.

Again Allen goes back to the 1920s, an era he has explored before in “Bullets Over Broadway” and to a lesser degree “Midnight in Paris.” The elements of magicians and illusions have also been covered in “Shadows and Fog” and the underrated “Stardust Memories.” Thematically, it feels like Woody Allen has done this film before, even in the relationship between Colin Firth and Emma Stone, which generates zero chemistry. In his quest to make at least one film a year, the 78 year old auteur has made this one a placeholder, albeit a funnier, more beautifully filmed and at times more interesting placeholder – better than most of the films out there.

Stanley (Colin Firth) is a master magician, renown for his ability to conjure illusions and expose hucksters trying to con people with similar sleights-of-hand. A fellow magician named Howard (Simon McBurney) asks Stanley to help his expose a psychic named Sophie (Emma Stone), who is traveling with her mother (Marcia Gay Harden) at the lavish estate of son Brice (Hamish Linklater) and mother Grace (Jacki Weaver).

Colin Firth, Emma Stone
Stanley (Colin Firth) and Sophie Are Together in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
Photo credit: Sony Pictures Classics

Sophie is seemingly unbreakable in her abilities, and has an uncanny way of figuring out elements of Stanley’s life in an unsolicited manner. She begins to break down Stanley’s doubt, which has plagued him his entire life. After one amazing psychic event after another, Stanley becomes smitten with Sophie, which throws the delicate balance of his life out of synch. Will there truly be magic in the moonlight?

The relationship of Stanley (in his fifties) and Sophie (twentysomething) is a true May-December attempt at romance, but that truth is never mentioned, and hangs in the air quite strangely. The principle romance also has no chemistry, as Firth’s Stanley struggles to hold onto his curmudgeon attitudes in the face of Sophie’s powers. Firth was better at being a crank than a lover in this coupling, and there doesn’t feel like a connection between them, even with Emma Stone doing most of the heavy lifting.

The exploration of 1920s fads – like psychics and seances – is fascinating, even though Allen has explored similar themes in other movies. The estate chosen for the production was compositionally brilliant, and many of the artistic canvas-like shots of cinematographer Darius Khondji looked like fancy 1920s postcard art. Emma Stone was perfectly cast as a 1920s faux flapper, and uses her on-screen allure at its very peak.

It would be interesting to get a reaction from an audience member who has never seen Allen’s previous works, as a wonder to whether this film holds up as a separate entertainment. Comparing it to his overall resume, though, leaves this film in the middle section of “just okay” (joining such previous works as “Mighty Aphrodite,” “Small Time Crooks,” “Anything Else,” “Cassandra’s Dream,” etc.). The depth and breadth of Allen’s filmography, closing in on 50 films, is a testament to his creativity and energy, but they can’t all be gems, apparently.

Jacki Weaver, Marcia Gay Harden
The Mothers: Jacki Weaver and Marcia Gay Harden in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
Photo credit: Sony Pictures Classics

There are some decent laughs in the Allen screenplay, and besides the misfire of how Firth interpreted Stanley, there is the precise casting that always makes an Allen film that much more enjoyable. Jacki Weaver is her usual transcendent presence as the matron of the estate, Grace, who so willingly wants to believe in the spirit world. Marcia Gay Harden as Sophie’s mother, and Hamish Linklater as the plucky Brice, both comfortably fit in their 1920s clothes, in addition to Simon McBurney as Stanley’s magician friend Howard, who adds a bit of British intrigue to the whole proceedings.

One thing that can always be said for Woody Allen – you never know what he will come up with next, and even in this film’s similarities to others there is still a bit of whimsy and yes, “magic” within the story. It’s impossible to understand what keeps Woody Allen going, but how does anyone understand this artist?

“Magic in the Moonlight” has a limited release, including Chicago, on July 25th. See local listings for theaters and show times. Featuring Colin Firth, Emma Stone, Simon McBurney, Hamish Linklater, Jacki Weaver, Marcia Gay Harden. Written and directed by Woody Allen. Rated “PG-13”


HollywoodChicago.com senior staff writer Patrick McDonald

Senior Staff Writer

© 2014 Patrick McDonald, HollywoodChicago.com

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