August 29 — September 04
Magic in the Moonlight
|Sat & Sun||2:00||5:00||7:00|
Unless otherwise noted, films begin on Friday and run through the next Thursday.
Writer-director Woody Allen returns to Europe (and the Jazz Age) for this frothy romance with a little kick. The film opens in late ‘20s Berlin, where the Chinese magician Wei Ling Soo is dazzling theater audiences with feats that defy the laws of nature. That his act is a rather pedestrian—it’s full of hackneyed routines like making elephants disappear and sawing a lady in half—is part of the joke: the kind of kid’s stuff that amazed grown-ups in the old days are all too familiar to modern viewers. The fact that Wei Ling Soo isn’t Chinese at all—he’s actually Englishman Stanley Crawford (Colin Firth)—is obvious to us but not to Crawford’s astonished dupes. Stanley’s not so much a magician as he is a professional skeptic, happily debunking fake clairvoyants and spell-casting charlatans like an old-timey Amazing Randi. He’s an atheist who has no faith in anything that science can’t prove. By letting moviegoers scoff at “Wei Ling Soo” and his act, the film forces us to side with Stanley, even if we don’t like his smug superiority. If any other actor had played our hero, he’d probably be insufferable, but Colin Firth can’t help but charm us: we just know that under his gruff, condescending exterior, he’s really a wide-eyed optimist who hopes that magic truly exists. And we know that all it will take is the right woman to show Stanley it does. Magic in the Moonlight may be predictable to a large degree, but that’s part of its charm: Allen’s made a modern-day romantic comedy in the literate, sophisticated style of Noël Coward. A friend of Stanley’s gives him a job: to check out a young American woman who claims to be psychic. So it’s off to the French Riviera so Stanley can “rescue” the wealthy Catledge clan from Sophie Baker (Emma Stone), a famous medium whom Stanley suspects is trying to get her hands on their fortune. The Cote d’Azur has never looked so sun-drenched and luscious as it has through the lens of cinematographer Darius Khondji: it’s the perfect backdrop for this romantic confection that wouldn’t have been out of place in Hollywood’s Golden Age. One can easily picture Cary Grant as Stanley and Carole Lombard as Sophie. But Firth and Stone generate sparks of their own, as they initially spar and claw at each other—before the inevitable attraction begins to loosen their resolve. At first, Stanley is all starched-collar snobbery as he tries to poke holes in the “gypsy” act he thinks Sophie (helped by her mother, played by Marcia Gay Harden) is pulling on gullible widow Grace (Jacki Weaver). He’s none too pleased to find that Sophie’s also ingratiated herself with Grace’s son (Hamish Linklater), a conceited jerk who falls for her instantly and woos her with ukulele serenades and expensive gifts. And Sophie isn’t too taken with Stanley, finding him obnoxious and self-impressed, his disdain for the supernatural symptomatic of his joyless approach to life. We know these two will slowly unthaw, and that Stanley will start to appreciate those mysterious forces that we can’t see—like love. The story is tried and true, but it’s enjoyable to watch their relationship develop because the actors’ chemistry is genuine and Allen’s biting, insightful dialogue remains as sharp as ever. This may not be top-echelon Woody Allen, but even his more relaxed, effervescent offerings are superior to most of the dull rom-coms made today. Magic in the Moonlight also benefits from the period setting: Allen’s love of jazz, the Roaring Twenties, and France all come together in a romantic concoction that’s really… well, magical. Khondji’s wonderful cinematography should also be praised: just as he made The Immigrant feel like sepia-tinted photographs of 1920’s New York come to life, his evocation of the South of France during the period that Hemingway and other American expatriates discovered this post-war refuge is haunting, dream-like. Even more than Allen’s Midnight in Paris, this movie conveys the feeling of a bygone era, one that viewers will long to visit. The actors, too, are perfect for the film, especially Stone in her flapper wardrobe—her sparkling personality suggests both divine decadence and appealing innocence, making viewers unsure if her “powers” are for real or not. Firth is also great as the gruff, hardboiled skeptic who undergoes a change of heart by the end of the film. In one of the movie’s best scenes, a desperate Stanley attempts to pray for the first time in his life, but can’t quite break through his own self-consciousness to believe in it. This is Woody Allen at his best, too: combining well-observed insights into human nature, funny-excruciating situations, and real sympathy for his characters. Allen’s always been fascinated with death (an early film was called Love and Death), and here he contemplates the possibility of life after death—he’s much like Stanley: wanting to believe in a future more hopeful than his normal pessimism allows, but not quite sure how to do it. The meditations on “the world beyond” make Magic in the Moonlight deeper than just a throwaway comedy, but it’s still a deft, light-footed romance propelled by two terrific performers making the most of Allen’s smart dialogue. It doesn’t break new ground story-wise but it’s delightful to watch—and the 1920’s French Riviera setting will positively transport moviegoers as surely as the power of love transports Stanley Crawford.
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