There is no doubt that Woody Allen falls into the ‘hit or miss’ category. The 79-year old Allen is still writing and directing his films and we get a new movie every year. This self-imposed annualized system of his had led to several fairly rotten films. On the other hand, when Woody Allen is on his game, he can deliver some of the sharpest and wittiest character-driven movies you’ll find. His latest picture is “Magic in the Moonlight” and the big question was which Woody Allen were we going to get?
I have to admit my expectations for this film were pretty tempered. Critics seem to be split down the middle on it and even the positive reviews rarely featured high praise. So I sat down to watch the film preparing to be disappointed to some degree. But an interesting thing happened. The film hooked me after its first few scenes. As it went on I found myself more interested in its characters, more taken by its charms, more amused by its humor, and more satisfied with its simplicity. As it turns out I really liked this movie.
As with many of Allen’s films, “Magic in the Moonlight” follows a very eccentric lead character. Colin Firth plays Stanley, a famous traveling illusionist in late 1920s Europe. He is a smug, snarky fellow who we quickly learn to dislike. His arrogance really shows itself in his obsession with mortality, specifically debunking any notion of mysticism or an afterlife. When describing himself and his perspective on the subject Stanley states “I’m a rational man who believes in a rational world. Any other way lies madness.” His close-minded cynicism and innate stubbornness won’t allow him to entertain the possibilities of there being more beyond what we see.
One of Stanley’s side pleasures is exposing psychics as frauds. He is recruited by a childhood friend (Simon McBurney) to travel with him to the French Riviera where a young American clairvoyant named Sophie Baker (Emma Stone) has wooed a very wealthy family. No one has been able to disprove Sophie’s “mental vibrations”, but that doesn’t deter the overly confident Stanley. After arriving at the Côte d’Azur, insulting most of the people he meets, and sitting in on a séance, Stanley finds himself baffled at Sophie’s abilities. Complicating matters even more, he soon finds himself smitten with her.
When Allen’s material is clicking he can give us some truly fascinating characters. Stanley is a pompous and pretentious jerk. He’s insulting and confrontational, but there is another layer to the character. He’s also a miserable man whose facade of self-assuredness can’t hide his neurotic insecurities. The wily Colin Firth is fabulous and he handles Allen’s dialogue like a fine sculptor with clay. He delivers a character that is detestable, sympathetic, and sometimes laugh-out-loud funny. Much of it is due to the signature sharp writing, but a big part is all because of Firth. The man is incapable of a bad performance.
But it’s Eileen Atkins who almost steals the entire show. She plays Stanley’s wise and straight-shooting Aunt Vanessa. She practically raised him since birth and knows him better than anyone else. She’s a subtle firecracker and her frank but loving dealings with Stanley offer up some of the film’s best lines. I was a little less enthusiastic about Emma Stone. She certainly isn’t bad by any means, but in some scenes she just doesn’t quite feel right for the part. It may be that she clashes with portions of Allen’s writing style. I can’t quite put my finger on it.
One of the true stars of the film is cinematographer Darius Khondji. This is the fourth film he has shot for Woody Allen and his work is fabulous. More and more locations are becoming bigger characters in Allen’s films. Here the gorgeous French Riviera setting is vividly captured. Sometimes it playfully lingers as a backdrop. Other times Khondji seems to be framing a beautiful postcard right up until someone enters the frame. And then there is the percolating 1920s setting. I loved the conscientious attention given to the many period details.
I can see where “Magic in the Moonlight” would be too lightweight for some people. For some it may not be funny enough. For others it may not be romantic enough. Overall it has underwhelmed a lot of people. I found myself happily wrapped up in its setting, its humor, and its simplicity. Now don’t misunderstand me. This doesn’t have the magic of “Midnight in Paris”. But it is a film I enjoyed getting lost in, and when the final credits rolled I had a big smile on my face.