It’s gotten to be a bit of a running joke in the cinema world that every other year Woody Allen puts out a “lesser” work. That’s not completely untrue, but I’m pleased to say that this year Allen’s “off year” outing is pretty solid in and of itself. Beautiful looking and a fun vehicle for Colin Firth to be a bit on a silly side, Magic in the Moonlight isn’t an awards contender by any stretch, but it’s an enjoyable way to spend about 100 minutes in a movie theater. Firth gets to spar with Emma Stone in a way that consistently entertains throughout, while Allen never lets things get too ridiculous or too serious. It’s hardly his headiest material and once again there are recycled elements to this work, but whole thing just goes down really easily. Yes, I’ve never fond a movie of Allen’s that I haven’t at least found to be decent, but I know the difference between Manhattan and The Curse of the Jade Scorpion. This film isn’t the former by any stretch but it’s also miles away from the latter as well. It’s a cute little flick that won’t be an awards contender but should appeal to Allen’s legion of fans. Magic in the Moonlight isn’t a masterpiece at all (and calling it “minor Allen” probably is an accurate description), but it’s very easy to recommend to you all. On a hot summer day, it’s a pleasure to watch…
We begin by meeting our protagonist Stanley Crawford (Firth) in action. It’s 1928 and he’s a famous English magician who performs under heavy makeup as Wei Ling-soo in packed houses across Europe. He also is known for debunking the supernatural (including the Vatican, he says early on). When an old friend and fellow prestidigitator Howard (Simon McBurney) visits him backstage and requests his help on a particularly tricky case, the snooty Stanley jumps at the chance. Howard says he’s been watching the work of purported spirit medium Sophie Baker (Stone) and can’t figure out how she’s doing it. She and her mother (Marcia Gay Harden) have ingratiated themselves into a wealthy family’s life, particularly the son Brice (Hamish Linklater), who’s in love with her. Stanley thinks it’s all nonsense, so he agrees to go visit. Under a different name, he arrives and has the same problem…he can’t figure it out. Could Sophie be legit? More importantly, he’s falling in love with her, so is his judgment clouded? As his values are challenged, things get amusingly messy. The plot here is fairly simple, but the main pleasure is in just seeing everyone display solid chemistry with each other and have fun.
It’s far too rare that Colin Firth gets to truly let loose with comedy like he does here, and it’s a pleasure to see. He doesn’t try to imitate Allen, but it’s definitely an Allen type character. Firth is having a great time, reveling in the character’s snark and misanthropic nature, not afraid to really go for it. He consistently made me laugh. Emma Stone gets the muse treatment from Allen here, as it’s clear he’s got her in mind for future projects. She seems a touch out of place in the period elements, but she’s still very charming here and spits out Allen’s dialogue terrifically. Her chemistry with Firth especially is rather sparkling. Stone will be in Allen’s next outing, so I can’t wait to see here there. They’re the only two to really write home about, though Jacki Weaver is very solid as Brice’s mother, but she’s underused. The aforementioned Hamish Linklater is decent but unmemorable, except for trying to do Allen’s stammer at times, for no reason that I can ascertain. Simon McBurney is likewise unmemorable, while Marcia Gay Harden is outright wasted. The supporting cast also includes Eileen Atkins and more, but Firth and Stone are who fares the best here, by far.
Allen is seeking to recapture the magic (no pun intended) to some degree that he bottled with Midnight in Paris, and while he’s not able to go that far, he does once again have Darius Khondji as his cinematographer, so the film looks fantastic. Allen’s direction and writing are the same as usual (decidedly old fashion and either charming or hokey, depending on who you are), though the visuals are definitely better than average. This really does strike me as the sort of idea Allen literally pulls out of his drawer of aborted ideas that he showed off in his PBS documentary a year or so ago, but he makes it work. Apparently he was originally setting it on Long Island in the Hamptons as opposed to France, and that location change perhaps has made all the difference for him. The ending is more or less what you’d expect, but for a bit in the third act Allen does pull a bit of a surprise in how the handles the whole “do we need to be logical in our lives or is there a place for magic?” question.
Without question, Magic in the Moonlight is a bit of a forgettable Allen effort, but it’s still a good movie and well worth seeing. It’s basically recommendation worthy on its own for Firth and Stone, but the cinematography is another excellent selling point as well. For an Allen flick people were expecting nothing from, this definitely exceeds expectations. If you want a nice bit of summer counter programming, this film is a safe bet. Magic in the Moonlight sets out to endear itself to you, and in that regard the work is definitely a success.
–Thoughts? Discuss in the comments!