Magic in the Moonlight

Posted by Joel Copling on August 2, 2014

Woody Allen has now made it his mission to write and direct at least one movie per year, a brave but burdensome proposition that looms rather hugely over the proceedings of "Magic in the Moonlight." It's enough, in this case, that the film is a charmer, as attuned to its casual softness as to its protagonist's occasionally overpowering cynicism. Astonishment really only exists in one place for the film: an active exploration by Allen of his own pragmatic cynicism when matched up to the romantic spiritualism of his lead female character. One can almost suspect that the film sparked in Allen some serious, internal debate. Otherwise, this is a modest confection, likable, amusing, and quite winning.

Stanley Crawford's (Colin Firth) existence is strangely circular. He might perform onstage as a Chinese illusionist named Wei Ling Soo, but he despises those who use gimmickry nearly as much as he despises the gullible for believing in the gimmickry. As visiting friend and fellow magician Howard Burkan (Simon McBurney) puts it, though, Stanley is among the great debunkers of the occult, finding and publicizing the trickery for what it is. That is the very job for which Howard has sought out his old friend after a year or two apart: A family whose matriarch, Grace (Jacki Weaver), wants to hold a seance, during which she hopes to reconnect with her dead husband's soul, has hired an incredibly convincing spirit medium for the job.

And it just so happens that Sophie Baker (Emma Stone) has been wooed by Grace's son, and she's a real piece of work. She has an extraordinary gift for "mental vibrations," which she uses to pinpoint some insanely specific details when she so desires. Stanley is convinced that she's a fraud but can't help but be drawn to her for reasons that exceed his narrow view of the world around him (When Sophie comments that a shoreline is beautiful, he replies, "It's transient"). The shift for Stanley happens rather suddenly--a misstep in both Allen's screenplay and his own presumptions about one character's motivation--leading to a conventional third act of Stanley's attempts to woo Sophie in spite (or, perhaps, because?) of the circumstances.

Nevertheless, Allen has real empathy for these characters, and that empathy shines through on more than one occasion, largely personified through the performances. Firth is a blessing to this sort of role, attacking Stanley's pragmatism and naturally selling the moment when it must melt away for something gooier. Stone is just simply radiant as Sophie, blessing what could have been a one-note role--especially due to some climactic developments--with an underlying gravity. "Magic in the Moonlight" fumbles its thematic integrity more than once, but the emotional core remains, and that's not something at which to scoff.

Film Information

Colin Firth (Stanley), Emma Stone (Sophie), Marcia Gay Harden (Mrs. Baker), Hamish Linklater (Brice), Jacki Weaver (Grace), Erica Leerhsen (Caroline), Simon McBurney (Howard Burkan), Eileen Atkins (Aunt Vanessa).

Directed and written by Woody Allen.

Rated PG-13 (a brief suggestive comment, smoking throughout).

97 minutes.

Released in select cities on July 25, 2014.