Woody Allen is truly the Iron Chef of the cinema. He consistently writes and directs a variety of films – some salty, some sour and some sweet; some full meals, some appetizers and some sweet confections. And in this process, he roams across genres, periods and styles, working with the best actors of the moment. With such prodigious output, it is fair to believe that the results will be more or less satisfying. ‘Blue Jasmine’ was the real deal – a multi-course feast of great performances, writing and directing. I’m sorry to say that the latest, ‘Magic in the Moonlight’, is not quite up to that standard. It is a very pretty confection and plenty sweet; but ultimately offers empty calories – and a toothache.
Set between the wars in a Europe inhabited by wealthy expatriates, ‘Magic’ tells the story of the great magician of the day, Englishman Stanley Crawford (Colin Firth) performing under the guise and stage name of Wei Ling Soo. Stanley is also the consummate rationalist who has built a reputation for debunking spiritualists and mediums as the frauds he knows them to be. Stanley is invited by his boyhood friend and fellow magician Howard (Simon McBurney) to come to the south of France to unmask the beautiful young American Sophie Baker (Emma Stone) who has mesmerized a wealthy American family living the grand life off of grandpa’s (possibly ill-gotten) millions.
Stanley takes up the challenge, as fitting his curmudgeonly view of the world, and off we go to Provence, the Cote ‘d Azure and a gauzy travelogue of beautiful scenery, beautiful houses and beautiful people. He figures that he will expose the young woman quickly, stop off for a quick visit to his favorite aunt who (naturally) lives down the road, and be back in London with his very modern fiancé by the end of the week. But nothing is quite so simple, especially in a Woody Allen film. Stanley is initially confounded by Sophie and her seemingly clairvoyant insights; and then quickly (way too quickly, in my opinion) seduced by her ‘skills’, innocent charm, insouciance, and beauty. Despite the fact that Sophie is engaged to the scion of the family she is bilking, Stanley falls hard and fast in love with her. She represents the antithesis of his worldview, and gives him hope that there is more than pure rationality in life – just the thing he has been searching for since childhood.
I won’t spoil the ending for those of you who will hie yourself off the Nugget for ‘Magic in the Moonlight’ – and I would never say that you should not see the film and form your own opinion -- but suffice it to say that there are several twists and turns that lead to a happy ending for all involved. As I said: toothache.
And therein lies my ‘issue’ with the film: too sweet. At almost every turn, the opportunities to inject a bit of tartness are squashed. Stanley is supposed to be the supreme rationalist, and yet he falls so hard and fast for Sophie’s charming smile and blowing hair – not to mention her haunting insights – that his character becomes unrealistic. And then there are the mounting examples of silliness, such as Sophie’s ardent fiancée croaking out the ditties of the day accompanied by his ukulele; the necessary flat tire right next to an empty (but, of course, open) observatory that Stanley haunted as a child; the séances themselves, replete with ‘signs from the dead’ and floating candles; or the near-death experience of Stanley’s aunt. It is like eating one macaron after another without a taste of espresso: toothache!
Perhaps I am now becoming the curmudgeon and rationalist myself. Is there anything wrong with a confection now and then, even if it is empty calories? After all, I am happy to stop into Lou’s or Umpelby’s for a nice pastry now and then – even without the espresso. And the performances here are lovely, if a bit flat. To see Colin Firth trying to come to grips with his lifelong denial of the possibility of an afterlife or spirit world – even though he so desperately wants it to exist – is actually quite fun. He is alternately enraged and befuddled, and the contrast is quite fun to watch. And Emma Stone is so eager and innocent – quite contrary to her normally spunky characters – that you cannot help but like her. She plays the role as though her ‘gifts’ were something that she simply has – and she doesn’t give them much deep thought. It keeps the role very breezy – but also doesn’t provide much depth.
The supporting characters are all excellent, if often underutilized. Marcia Gay Harden, as Sophie’s mother and titular ‘agent’ is particularly wasted. If she has 10 words, I would be surprised – which is a crime against such a skilled actor. But particularly good are McBurney, whose ulterior motives are carefully hidden beneath his earnestness and bonhomie; and Eileen Atkins as Stanley’s beloved aunt, full of worldly wisdom and love for her misguided nephew.
So now the choice is yours: dinner or dessert? In my humble opinion, this is NOT dinner. But it could be a nice dessert. Perhaps take yourself to Canoe Club for a good meal, and finish the evening with ‘Magic in the Moonlight’ as dessert: it could be a very acceptable date night. But if you start with ‘Magic’ and then stop in a Morano for a bit of gelato, I know what you will end up with: a toothache!