Emma Stone as Sophie Baker
Colin Firth as Stanley Crawford
Hamish Linklater as Brice Catledge
Eileen Atkins as Aunt Vanessa
Simon McBurney as Howard Burkan
Marcia Gay Harden as Mrs. Baker
Jacki Weaver as Grace Catledge
Directed by Woody Allen
Magician Stanley Crawford (Colin Firth) has been contacted and summoned by his friend and fellow magician Howard (Simon McBurney) to the South of France to investigate a psychic named Sophie Baker (Emma Stone) who Howard believes to be a fraud. Once there, Crawford is cynical about Sophie’s abilities but is slowly convinced to believe when she knows things about him one else could possibly know.
Having an annual offering from a great filmmaker like Woody Allen may be seen as a curse or a blessing depending on how you feel about his output over the past ten years. Like his 1999 film “Sweet and Lowdown” and the more amusing bits of “Midnight in Paris,” Allen’s latest is a period piece set in the ’20s, which also returns Allen to the slightly cynical romantic comedies he’s done so well, going back even further than his classic “Annie Hall.”
That’s not to say that “Magic in the Moonlight” is breaking much new ground–its title being quite literal in that the story involves both magic and moonlight–but it does have a certain charm that’s quite endearing, especially when compared to some of Allen’s more recent duds.
After watching him perform an oddly racist magical act as a Chinese magician, Firth’s Stanley is called to the South of France, already cynical about spirituality and the occult, so he’s not as swayed by Sophie’s smile and personality as some of the others in the family, like Hamish Linklater’s Brice who falls head over heels for her, serenading her with his ukulele. To Stanley, Sophie is nothing more than hustler trying to get money from the rich, but her personality is so addictive–much like Stone’s in fact–that it’s hard not to want to trust her.
Much of that comes from the undeniable chemistry between the two leads, Colin Firth and Emma Stone, who are able to transcend their regrettable age difference to become two of those perfect Woody Allen characters that settle naturally into his distinct style of dialogue. The banter back and forth is incredibly witty and clever, just like some of Allen’s best writing.
The fact is that few modern filmmakers can do romantic comedies as well as Allen still does and that has as much to do with the dialogue as it does his casting which seems far more conventional than in some of his other recent movies. As always, Allen’s writing is a textbook in how to write clever and witty dialogue that doesn’t go out of its way to feel natural but works for the nature of his characters. Being a period piece often might add a hurdle to any writer, but Allen’s confident writing feels very much like the times without feeling forced.
As one might expect, there is a twist to the story–one I personally saw coming miles away– but other turns are more unexpected which makes things like Stanley spurning Sophie’s advances so much more enjoyable. At first, you wonder whether Stanley is trying to act unattainable to hide his true feelings, but you’ll have to wait another 20 minutes to find out for sure. It feels good knowing Allen avoids resorting to obvious rom-com cliches–as well as his usual storytelling tricks–whenever he can help it.
As sweet and charming as it is, the film also has a darkly cynical undercurrent to its humor, particularly Firth’s character who spouts the type of sarcasm we often see from Allen’s leading men. We get an equally citrusy personality in Stanley’s Aunt Vanessa, an amazing performance by Eileen Atkins, the two of them having a few fun scenes together, especially one later in the film when she uses reverse psychology to convince Stanley of his true feelings for Sophie.
The Bottom Line:
“Magic in the Moonlight” may be feel fairly light and expendable compared to some of Woody Allen’s deeper films, but it has his usual irrepressible charm that will appeal to those who have stuck with him through thick and thin.
Magic in the Moonlight opens in New York and Los Angeles on Friday, July 25, and will likely expand to other cities over the course of July.