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Non-Review Review: Magic in the Moonlight

Attending a Woody Allen movie can often feel like playing low-stakes roulette. An extraordinarily prolific director with an incredible body of work behind him, Allen seems capable of churning out films that run the gamut from joyless and pedestrian to magical and exceptional. Woody Allen movies are like trains; if you don’t like this one, there will inevitably be another along in a year or so. However, it feels strange that his fiftieth feature should land so near the middle of the pack.

Magic in the Moonlight is an enjoyable Woody Allen comedy. It lacks a mesmerising central performance like Blue Jasmine or the sheer charm of Midnight in Paris, but it is a well-made and enjoyable excursion. There is charm and wit to it, and it never drags too heavily. However, there is very little truly exceptional about it. Magic in the Moonlight is more of a parlour trick than a how-stopping illusion; delightful and diverting, but feeling a little too unrefined to be truly memorable.

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Despite the fact that Magic in the Moonlight feels like “business as usual” for the director, there is a sense that his fiftieth feature has allowed a little more of its creator to seep into the script. Colin Firth plays Stanley, an ageing cynic who seems completely disillusioned with life. He practices stage magic under yellowface using the alias Wei Ling Soo, an obvious shoutout to Chung Ling Soo – the creation of William Ellsworth Robinson, whose dedication to the art also inspired a character in Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige.

Magic-as-metaphor is a tried-and-tested cinematic storytelling device. After all, what are films but a form of magic, some clever trickery design to do something impossible in front of an audience? However, Stanley is a rather disillusioned stage magician. A bitter malcontent, he derives little joy from his art – instead taking a great of pleasure snarkily sniping at those he deems lesser than himself. That is, until he meets Sophie.

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Sophie is a beautiful and charming young woman who manages to convince him that magic might actually exist. A young medium, Sophie is staying with an American family in the south of France, claiming to be able to commune with the dead. Her magic is a little more personal than Stanley’s stage show, a little more intimate. Stanley shows up to debunk her, but – over time – he begins to suspect that perhaps there may be something to her art.

It is very tempting to read a lot of Allen himself into the character of Stanley. Allen is, after all, a cynical auteur who finds himself inspired and energised by the talents of young actresses. It is not as if Allen has never written himself into his own scripts. Although he does not play his own lead actors any more, there is still a sense that many of Allen’s scripts expose a little of how the writer sees himself. Owen Wilson might play his Woody Allen lead character a little less like outright imitation than Kenneth Branagh, but the sense is still there.

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Stanley gets no shortage of wry Woody Allen observations about the world. Summarising the nature of human existence, he reflects, “We’re born, and then – having committed no crime at all – we are all sentenced to death.” Like Allen, Stanley finds himself reinvigorated by a trip to Europe, perhaps an acknowledgement of how the continent sparked a late-career renaissance for Allen himself.

Magic in the Moonlight tease these ideas quite a bit.  One of the supporting characters in this comedy is a psychoanalyst, who provides a fairly blunt summary of Stanley’s personality quirks and disorders. “He began as an escape artist,” our psychoanalyst reflects, “as if one could escape from reality itself.” Allen is, naturally in on the joke, something that makes it seem all the shrewder. Stanley’s misanthropism is simply Allen’s typical cynicism turned all the way up.

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If Blue Jasmine say Woody Allen staging a comedic homage to the work of Tennessee Williams, then Magic in the Moonlight seems inspired by another early twentieth-century playwright. With its witty banter and upper crust setting, it seems like Allen is deftly channeling Noel Coward. Even the casting of Colin Firth in the lead role seems to be a nod towards Coward’s portrayal of Britishness, as does a reveal in the final act that recontextualises Stanley’s visit with the Catledges.

As ever, Allen has assembled a fine cast. Emma Stone’s performance as Sophie steals the film – a witty, charming and delightful performance that demonstrates why Allen has been so keen to work with her. Firth is solid in the lead role, even if he struggles with some of the radical shifts in tone that the script demands. He is an odd fit for a Woody Allen protagonist, acquitting himself considerably better than Branagh, but not as comfortably as Wilson.

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However, one gets the sense that this slight awkwardness has nothing to do with Firth himself. The nature of the film means that characterisation will be loose and broad. Stanley doesn’t so much develop as swing wildly from one mode to another. There is no nuance or greyness; no sliding scale of pithy cynicism or romantic idealism. Stanley begins the movie as the most bitter and disillusioned of individuals, but he suddenly finds himself swept up in the eponymous magic. He immediately believes that anything is possible.

The problem is that the transition is too swift. Allen puts the moments where Stanley switches sides on screen, and they feel ridiculously forced. Apparently a lifetime of skepticism can be undone with a few well-chosen sentences; and faith easily won is just as easily lost. One might as well have had Allen wander into the shot and flick Stanley’s “cynical/idealistic” switch himself. This is perhaps the most obvious example, but there are other instances where character interactions and developments feel contrived.

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Of course, given the style of Magic in the Moonlight, a little exaggeration is called for. Such is the style of the film. However, while the world they inhabit may seem staged, and the dialogue may hark back to a more classical style, Magic in the Moonlight works best when its lead characters seem like a little more substantial than the “magic” around them. The issue is not the number of coincidences or contrivances necessary to make Magic in the Moonlight work; the problem is that Stanley and Sophie never seem to react in a way that feels real.

It is perhaps fitting, then, that Magic in the Moonlight feels a little bit more like Stanley’s music hall magic than Sophie’s more personal variety; it is all perfectly stage-managed, and not organic enough.

2 Responses

  1. Great review!

    The thing I find fascinating about Allen’s films is his approach to spirituality. In modern fiction we see plenty of atheists in grief – that is characters who lost their faith through personal tragedy. Allen on the other hand here, and in other films gives us a ‘Grieving Atheist’ – someone who is deeply upset by his own lack of faith but can’t bring himself to believe. It’s a striking notion, a rather old fashioned one in a world dominated by the likes of Richard Dawkins.

    That’s why I had no problem with Firth’s changes in world view; as he said himself he desperately wants himself to be wrong.

    • I can see the logic there, and it wasn’t a fatal flaw, it was just something that bugged me about the film. I did quite like Magic in the Moonlight, even if it wasn’t as good as his strongest recent films.

      It wasn’t the idea of the conversion that bugged me, it was the scene where she is “reading” the pearls. It was a bit that could have been fleshed out, transitioning between two points in Firth’s character arc that seemed to be driven more by expedience than by internal logic. It may have been better to have him silent during the reading, working through it internally, and then at the end reveal his confuddlement and new-found faith. (Similarly, the bit at the end where he forgives his friend for that crushing betrayal because all’s well that ends well, felt like a quick cutaway that was doing something expedient rather than narratively satisfying.)

      Oddly enough, I really liked the “prayer” sequence, which I though conveyed the character’s changing perspective a lot better and fit with the exaggerated mood of the film. But it seems possible that this is down to the fact that Allen was probably more “in tune” with that scene – as you noted, he seems like an author who wants to believe but can’t, so it was probably easier to draw on that than on the moment of conversion.

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