“Cloquet hated reality but realized it was still the only place to get a good steak,” Woody Allen once wrote in the 1977 short story "The Condemned" (hat tip to The New York Times), and it's as good as any an example of the raison d’etre and outlook on life of the glib, witty and yet philosophical filmmaker; bleak and yet slightly hopeful. Allen’s preoccupation with death and his own mortality is well-documented in his films and prose, and part of that obsession may have been escaping the harshness of reality. But behind all the existential dread that has troubled characters across his films, lays the question: is that all there is, this misery of life? Or could there be something more? These questions define the color of his latest picture, “Magic In The Moonlight,” an occasionally delightful, if familiar and sometimes strained comedy, taking place in the 1930s along the shimmering coastline of the Côte d'Azur.
However, before the comic intrigue in the French Riviera, ‘Moonlight’ begins in Berlin. The famous Chinese magician, Wei Ling Soo, is dazzling his audience once again with unrivaled prestidigitation. But this illusionist is actually the arrogant, cynical Englishman and brilliant performer Stanley Crawford (Colin Firth), a pragmatist and atheist of sour disposition. The sudden visit from an old friend and sleight-of-hand colleague Howard Burkan (Simon McBurney) presents an enticing challenge that the already spiritualist-averse Stanley cannot resist: a psychic medium in the South Of France has duped Howard’s wealthy relatives, potentially controlling their fortune, and the friend hopes the performer can unmask this woman’s evidently convincing legerdemain.
This alluring proposal is far too tantalizing for Stanley—already renowned for debunking counterfeits—and soon he arrives under guise and pseudonym to unmask the clairvoyant Sophie Baker (Emma Stone), who is accompanied by her protective mother (Marcia Gay Harden). But the skeptical and discourteous Stanley quickly meets his match in Sophie, and her faculties are so astounding, they begin to melt the cynical veneer and deeply-held beliefs that the performer has espoused for an entire lifetime. Perhaps even unveiling a latent longing to know more about what happens when we shuffle beyond this mortal coil.
Co-starring Jacki Weaver, Hamish Linklater and Erica Leerhsen as part of the affluent Catledge family that Sophie has deceived, and Eileen Atkins as Stanley’s charming and beloved Aunt Vanessa, Allen’s cast is top-notch, and these aforementioned characters in particular all but perfectly convincing. But Allen’s leads steal the show without question. Handcuffing Firth away from his preternatural charms seems counter-intuitive as a casting move, but the actor as a bitter and disagreeable pessimist is a great against-type choice that totally works. Firth draws the character in such a distinct way he strays away from the fussy and neurotic Woody Allen archetype he’s clearly modeled on. And Emma Stone, as usual, is endlessly charming as the endearing spiritualist with a bright outlook on life despite her uneducated worldview and limited means.
As Allen is wont to do, most of his characters in “Magic In The Moonlight” represent his own personal belief system and the dichotomies of such. Firth is the surly, yet sensible nonbeliever militantly fixed to his ideals, while Stone is carefree, spirited and optimistic. These archetypes help breathe life into the characters as we’re introduced to them and sets the stage for the conflicts of these diametrically opposed schools of thought.
But where ‘Moonlight’ begins to falter is in its desire to restate these opposing perspectives on life over and over again, particularly in the case of Firth. What begins as amusingly sarcastic and mocking observations that roll off his tongue rather mellifluously begin to curdle into acidic repetitious monologues that are far too on the nose.
But the combative tête-à-tête between Firth and Stone is largely watchable and their chemistry is natural and effortless. Firth in particular drives his incorrigibly cranky character right to the edge of unsympathetic and yet gracefully sidesteps the audience from ever loathing him outright. And as their mutual attraction begins to grow, we too become smitten with their infectiously endearing dynamic.
Shot by the great Darius Khondji, the film looks like visual South Of France pornography. While the tangerine-flecked rays of “To Rome with Love” were beautiful in their own right, almost nothing quite dazzles the way Khondji captures the light flickering off the bucolic setting and the aquamarine waves of the Côte d'Azur. Each carefully composed shot is a marvel to behold.
“Quality will vary” could be the maxim for latter-day Woody Allen films; you sometimes just don’t know what you’re going to get. But if one were to measure his recent run, “Magic In The Moonlight” might come in third after “Blue Jasmine” and “Midnight In Paris” and before “To Rome With Love.” That may not sound promising, but this period in retrospect is fertile and satisfying compared other quality periods that only lasted a picture or two. And so “Magic In The Moonlight” is good in many regards, and mostly enjoyable for most of its 97-minute running time. But it’s also admittedly uneven in spots, familiar and ultimately a bit slight. The film’s overlong, dragging conclusion certainly doesn’t help. And its ending is far too safe, even for those that might have enjoyed the comforting pleasures of the equally warm “Midnight In Paris.” Certainly the thematic texture the movie explores throughout is let down by something a little bit more banal.
Ultimately, “Magic In The Moonlight” is a movie about beliefs held, challenged, broken and possibly even transformed. Allen circles back to his concerns about love and death, interspersed with notions of logic, faith and even the metaphysical. And it flirts with the mesmeric beauty of the unexplained, of paradoxes and lofty philosophical ideas, only to let them fade away like an enchanting sunset at dusk. While “Magic In The Moonlight” trades in the opportunity to say something profound or even meaningful about most of these concepts for unsatisfyingly prosaic and frustrating impressions of romance, there are still gleams of gratification to be found. And perhaps because the movie negotiates sobering reality with a hopeful world beyond, maybe the picture's most fitting trick is how it only delivers a little measure of magic. [B]