Oh hey, it’s that time of year again where we get another Woody Allen movie. What better way to celebrate than to tell people not to watch it and recommend a documentary to watch instead? Even for one of the director’s latter-day films, Magic in the Moonlight is especially airy and forgettable. It involves many of the philosophical ideas with which Allen is so enamored, such as the search for meaning in a godless universe, but makes none of them stick. Which is a shame, since the film’s story, about a 1920s magician who seeks to debunk a young psychic, had potential. As an alternative, check out Marjoe, another film about exposing religious fraud, albeit in a radically different context.
While Moonlight is set amidst the spiritualism craze of the early 20th century, Marjoe deals with revival evangelism, which was the choice avenue for hucksters of that era (and whose spirit continues to a certain extent today). The title character, Marjoe Gortner, was a brief sensation in the late 1940s as a child preacher. At just 4 years old, he was preaching complex sermons to the masses, his parents claiming him to be a divinely-touched prophet. In reality, he was just preternaturally gifted in mimicry, memorization and stage acting. Even as a tot, Gortner didn’t believe a word he spoke. When his voice cracked, his gimmick was gone, and his abusive parents absconded with the millions he’d raised, and he spent his adolescence as a hippie.
He returned to the preacher game as an adult, modeling himself after rock stars, to great success. But his conscience weighed on him, and so in 1971 he decided to end his “ministry.” First, though, he took filmmakers Howard Smith and Sarah Kernochan with him for one last tour.