In my opinion a new Woody Allen movie every year is a bit of a treat. Yes, they can disappoint such as Whatever Works, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger and To Rome with Love, but they can also be true knock outs such as Vicki Cristina Barcelona and Midnight in Paris, along with the stunning performance from Cate Blanchett in last year’s Blue Jasmine, and that’s only looking at the last six Allen films. He’s directed nearly 50 over his illustrious career and I’d say his latest, Magic in the Moonlight, falls somewhere in the middle.
Set in France in the 1920s, the film is complete with all the acerbic wit, pessimism for life and otherwise charm the better Allen films often exude. Magic in the Moonlight‘s first two-thirds are delightful as we’re first introduced to Colin Firth in the role of Stanley Crawford, a pompous and arrogant English magician whose stage name is Wei Ling Soo. Yes, he puts on something of a full “Fu Manchu” disguise for his performances, complete with a bald cap, fake mustache and red robe.
Accompanying his ego, Stanley has quite the negative attitude, accepting the world only for what he sees, holding no belief in God, mysticism or the supernatural whatsoever. Putting his beliefs to the test, Stanley’s life-long friend Howard Burkan (Simon McBurney) has a new challenge for him, the debunking of a spiritualist claiming to be able to see the future, into your past as well as the power to contact the dead. Angered at the mere idea his friend could not see through the swindle and that someone might get away with scamming unwitting believers, Stanley accepts the challenge and the two set off for the south of France.
Enter Sophie Baker (Emma Stone), an American born in Kalamazoo, Michigan and the supposed medium Stanley has come to expose, and her mother (Marcia Gay Harden). Immediately Sophie is able to see glimmers of who Stanley may be as he’s unwilling to show his hand for a second, and not in the least willing to accept she is anything other than a fraud… at least not at first.
Stanley, as it turns out, for all his negativity is ready to accept something beyond the real world, even if he didn’t know it. This is to say, he’s eventually convinced of Sophie’s powers, becoming her biggest fan and with this comes one of the film’s two big questions: “Would life be better if I walked around clueless and stupid?“. The other is to ask, “How long can you swindle a swindler and do we ever really want to believe there isn’t something more out there?”
It’s in these questions the film gains and loses its steam all at once. Anyone that’s seen a Woody Allen film knows the guy is obsessed with the meaning of life as well as what I would say a fear of death and a frustration for life’s little annoyances. As with so many of his leading men, Firth is essentially playing the role of Woody Allen and, like Owen Wilson in Midnight in Paris, brings his own twist to the character, though I’m sure many will say that “twist” is to channel John Cleese, but who’s going to complain about that? It’s absolutely wonderful and Firth is as good here as he has been in anything.
Stone fits perfectly into Allen’s world, comically getting spiritual “vibrations” in her attempt to not only convince Stanley, but the audience as well that her power is real. But this is a Woody Allen film, can we really believe he’d accept the idea a spiritual medium exists? I don’t know, did you believe a magic car was taking Owen Wilson back to the Golden Age in Midnight in Paris?
You’re sure to get caught up in the film’s first two thirds, along with not only the performances of Stone and Firth, but those of Jacki Weaver as a widow convinced of Sophie’s powers as well as her son, Brice (Hamish Linklater), whose fallen for Sophie hook, line and sinker to the point he serenades her with a mandolin throughout the film. But it’s the final third where many are likely to look on with raised eyebrows as Allen turns the film into something of a sappy, Nicholas Sparks-esque romance not at all fitting of the film’s tone and theme throughout, especially considering there are so many more intriguing directions he could have taken the story.
Walking out of the theaters all I could think of is to wonder just how quickly Allen writes his films and if he ever deviates from what he’s written once he begins production. The final third of this film feels like a mood change as if Allen may have written the film when he was in a bit of a pessimistic state of mind, but by the time he began filming optimism had seeped in and took over, allowing for a whole new ending, betraying the film’s actual tone and tenor. Who knows? For what it’s worth, Magic in the Moonlight remains a fun film, a middle-of-the-road Allen feature you’re sure to get a few laughs at if not left walking away wishing it had ended a little better.