Since time immemorial Woody Allen has been entranced by the art of illusions. A proponent of magic tricks as a child, Allen’s affinity for legerdemain has manifested itself throughout his filmography — most notable in his surreal homage to Federico Fellini, Stardust Memories. Now with Magic in the Moonlight the nebbish New Yorker has pulled off yet another impressive act of prestidigitation: making a jubilant and delightful trifle that — much like many of his other 44 films — ponders the rhyme and reason of our existence, however futile or fruitful that may be.
To Stanley (Colin Firth) our existence is meaningless. In order to remain comfortable in that unrepentantly bleak worldview, he’s made a career out of exposing pseudo spiritualists — opportunistic swindlers who dupe people into believing they possess divine powers bestowed to them by some omniscient deity. The Englishman’s latest assignment is to debunk the mythical Sophie (Emma Stone), a young American woman who has convinced everyone around her that she’s, as one character exclaims, “a visionary and a vision.”
And Sophie is indeed a vision — a beautiful, charming, and inquisitive red-haired belle that every man seems to fall head over heels for. First it’s Brice (Hamish Linklater), an affluent and whimsical businessman who spends the bulk of his time serenading Sophie with original love songs on his ukulele. Then comes Stanley, who begrudgingly becomes more and more taken with this celestial creature as he continuously attempts to unmask her charade.
Slowly the skeptical curmudgeon softens then opens his heart, leaving room for hope that Sophie truly does contain magical powers. And yes, there is a moment, however brief, where there is a perceptible twinkle in Stanley’s eye — where he believes in something, no matter how foolish and improbable that something may be. Though of course, it’s a fleeting moment soon washed away by Allen’s familiar cynicism. As anyone who has experienced an Allen movie can imagine, it’s only a matter of time before Stanley’s pragmatism kicks in.
Firth does an excellent job channeling the type of character Allen would’ve played himself in the 80s and 90s. An unhappy and depressive neurotic who won’t succumb to primitive thoughts because they’re more comforting, Firth hits all the right notes with impeccable timing and charisma. Similarly superb is Stone, who assumes the role of this likable humbug from Kalamazoo, Michigan with grace and wit. Despite those who have quibbled over the 28-year age gap between these two, there’s nothing unnatural or pedophilic about their romance. Allen’s script remains restrained when it comes to this love — giving the characters time and space to flesh themselves out and interact with one another in a meaningful fashion.
The background for all this romancing and contemplating of life, death, and god is 1920s South of France. Shot on film by cinematographer Darius Khondji (who also shot Midnight In Paris), each stroll across the vineyard and drive through the mountains is immaculately captured, ensconced in the sort of stylish decadence only Europe in the roaring ’20s could supply. Khondji may not be Gordon Willis, but even when the conversations between characters grow tiring, you’re never at a loss for picturesque imagery.
Nearing 80 years of age, there’s something to be said about an aging artist who refuses to get mired in his ways. Yes, it’s unlikely that Allen will suddenly subscribe to Catholicism before he perishes. But at least his curiosity in the possibility of some omnipotent being hasn’t waned. It’s this constant battle between science and superstition, logic and faith, fact and fantasy that has fueled Allen’s artistic output for nearly half a century. And even when the bespectacled auteur makes his departure (to where, I don’t know), his work will live on. Magic in the Moonlight may not be the first film of his we explore, but it’s a healthy contribution to an oeuvre that continues to beat on, boats against the current, one year after the next.
The Upside: The pure delight that is experiencing a movie by a 78-year-old that feels fresh
The Downside: In comparison to last year’s Blue Jasmine, this is slight Allen fare
On the Side: Allen liked Stone so much here that he cast her in his next project starring opposite of Joaquin Phoenix.