‘Magic in the Moonlight:’ Slight of Movie

Magic and myth-busting are the stuff of Woody Allen’s latest film, Magic in the Moonlight. Colin Firth plays Stanley Crawford, aka Wei Ling Soo, a famous 1920’s magician whose greatest trick is pretending to be Chinese without offending everybody in the room. He’s as crotchety as they get, not only a cynic and a “non-believer,” but also an aggressive Nietzschean atheist and a total pain the ass to anyone who must suffer his presence. This doesn’t stop people from finding him amusing and trustworthy though, for some reason, and he is summoned to the home of the Catledge family to expose the medium they’ve just hired, a big-eyed American girl named Sophie Baker (Emma Stone), for the fraud that she must be. She’s already fooled Crawford’s magician friend, Howard Berken (Simon McBurney), into thinking she’s for real.

The Catledges live on a beautiful estate in the south of France. One thing the movie doesn’t skimp on is picturesque settings and costumes to die for, a level of romanticism that teeters on the line of insistent realism that Crawford spews throughout the entire film. Sophie has managed to convince some of the Catledges that her “mental impressions” and “vibrations” put her in touch with the spirit world, which now includes the family’s recently deceased patriarch. Her mother (Marcia Gay Harden) handles the money while Sophie sways and séances her way into people’s lives. 

Brice Catledge (the goofy Hamish Linklater), the gangly, ukulele-playing rich boy of the family has fallen under Sophie’s spell and courts her heavily, with silly songs and promises of yacht trips around Europe. But Crawford is far from smitten. He’s intent on finding her out, and in the process gets swept up into several cliché romantic comedy moments and totally convinced that Sophie is truly a psychic. His sudden transformation is so over the top that it’s laughable. 

For most of the movie, Crawford is staunch in his bitterness. He revels in his own rationalism. He’s cocky and clueless, to say the least, hardly a happy or appealing man in any way. He rattles on an on about how ludicrous it is to believe in real magic in such a way that it’s clear he never actually listens to what anyone else has to say or stops talking for enough time to let anyone say anything in the first place. When, all of a sudden,  he’s convinced that Sophie is the real thing and that magic is the truth, he literally stops to smell the roses and comment about finally stopping to smell the roses. It’s a manipulative movie maneuver that, in this case, is not so smooth, as far as they go.  

The man is mad with unease, in both his cynicism and then subsequent belief in it all. Colin Firth is unnerving to watch, which I suppose is the point, and his performance, as always, is the best thing about the movie. Every main character of Woody Allen’s is a reflection of himself, to some degree. The neurotic and highly repetitive nature of Crawford’s rants against the magic of magic certainly characterizes him as a Woody Allen creation, but does much less to make him any sort of attractive leading man for the fairly common romantic comedy that the film allows itself to become.

Emma Stone struggles a bit with the stage-like quality of the writing, however, that very well could be the writing’s fault. She plays the role she is given pretty well, but Sophie could and should be better, more complicated than she ultimately is. Though Magic in the Moonlight isn’t really for Sophie. The whole movie is for Crawford, and therefore Woody Allen, to air his grievances, once again. And I’m just not sure how many more times we want to hear it.

Grade: B-

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