Movie Review: “Magic in the Moonlight” (Woody Allen, USA 2014)

Woody Allen is an atheist. He is a melancholic. And Magic in the Moonlight wonders if these things are related. It says that magic and escapism make us happy but are an empty happiness but that logical reality is a truthfully sad existence, one where the world doesn’t give us joys.

But then it says, “Well, even in cold, logical reality, there is one piece of inexplicable magic: love.”

Allen has always been obsessed with the idea that love is mysterious and remarkably varied–his execrable Whatever Works (USA/France 2009) was, after all, saying, “You can’t question another person’s relationship, because whatever makes them happy is fine.” He’s always viewed “love” as some sort of ineffable force, one that brings together people who have little in common and at one point didn’t like each other in Hannah and Her Sisters (USA 1986), an un-artistic intellectual with a musician in Annie Hall (USA 1977), and a “debunker” with a psychic in Magic in the Moonlight.

What’s frustrating about Magic in the Moonlight is that it spends so much time setting up its punchline and focusing on its plot that it completely forgets to make its point. The supporting characters only matter for the story, not for the point. There aren’t other examples there to make the point (In fact, the couples are weirdly happy for a Woody Allen film.). There’s just the basic main plot, and the film seems very pleased with its own cleverness.

The film tells the story of a magician/”debunker” named Stanley who is clearly based on James Randi with a dash of Chung Ling Soo as he works to expose a pretty young psychic named Sophie Baker. He first starts falling for her act, then falls for her. Then, when he finds out that the act was a trick perpetrated by both Sophie and Stanley’s fellow magician friend Howard Burkan, the feelings do not go away. So, he predictably breaks up with his age-appropriate, entirely logical fiancee in order to be with her.

Unfortunately, as clever as that may sound and as fun as much of it is, the film just isn’t as smart as it needs to be. The con is really obvious and any half-decent magician should have spotted it, and the idea that a hardened skeptic could be that easily turned just because it happens to be a pretty girl is frankly insulting.

Allen and cinematographer Darius Khondji gives us a brightly-lit film with saturated colors, but they don’t do a lot to enhance the film’s point. Instead, the film just looks old-fashioned, befitting its time setting and Allen’s general sensibilities. It’s at least something different from what else is out there, but it’s not particularly interesting.

The acting is typically uneven for a Woody Allen film. Colin Firth’s performance as Stanley is rather a mess–he’s all stagey bravado with no depth or even basic human emotion until after his aunt’s accident. After the accident, he suddenly becomes a deeper, more emotional character, and Firth plays that part better. Emma Stone, meanwhile, is surprisingly excellent as the psychic. When Firth says, “She’s not even a good actress,” it’s easy to nod, because Sophie really isn’t good, and playing a bad actor is something that requires great skill. Jeremy Shamos has a small part, but he’s awful. He’s grinning inappropriately throughout the entire film. Simon McBurney is also pretty poor as Howard Burkan, obviously mugging for laughs even though his character doesn’t have the lines that will get the laughs.

Overall, Woody Allen is far from his best on Magic in the Moonlight. That’s not to say it’s awful–it’s a fun watch and it still has some great humor, but it’s nowhere near as smart or deep as it needs to be to be a great film. It’s a film someone else could have made, and if there is one sin Woody Allen should never commit, it’s to appear ordinary. I’m not sorry I saw it, but it’s far from memorable.

Notes

  • “Did you know he started out as an escape artist?” Gee, I wonder where he got that idea.
  • Stanley’s act that we see at the opening is not really that special, but it is fun that it is just so time-appropriate. Of course Allen, a student of magic, knows that.
  • The observatory opening with the telescope was Freudian imagery Hitchcock would have been proud of. It was also quite overdone.
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