Everything that makes a Woody Allen film great is present in Magic in the Moonlight. The film is a compendium of themes the author has dealt with throughout his lengthy career and showcases the best of Allen’s stylistic cinematic traits.
Yet, this film is not great. It’s not bad either, but it kind of proves that you can have the best ingredients, the best set of pots, the best chef, and still manage to spoil the broth.
Magic In The Moonlight is Allen’s 47th film as a director. It had a budget of around $18 million and made $32 million at the box office which is less than what his latest three films have grossed, but nevertheless shows he’s still good business. In a time of Kardashians and Biebers, knowing that a 78 year old auteur is still revered by audiences is certainly a refreshing thought and one of those things that makes you think that maybe not everything in this world is going to hell. Just recently, I found a stat that swept me away. Woody Allen has made more than $500 million dollars at the box office throughout his career. That’s certainly an impressive feat for a filmography of an average budget of $10 million per film and devoid of giant robots and grand explosions.
In Magic In The Moonlight, Stanley Crawford (Colin Firth) is a successful British stage magician in the late 1920’s. He’s a man who strongly advocates for all rational and scientific thinking and despises all supernatural and metaphysical beliefs. He seems to have a passion for debunking mystics and clairvoyants and one day receives an offer he can’t resist. Howard Burkan (Simon McBurney – The Borgias, The Theory of Everything) is a fellow illusionist, and life long friend of Stanley, who is hired by a wealthy family to uncover a psychic that seems to have taken over them. Sophie Baker (Emma Stone) is a young American woman that claims to communicate with the dead, predicts the future, and seems to have the ability to know anybody’s past. She is making them invest in her non-profit foundation for the “study of the occult” and, on top of that, has infatuated their eldest son who has already proposed marriage.
Simon confesses that it has been impossible for him to uncover her and has gotten to the point where he actually thinks she is the real deal. He enlists Colin Firth to go with him to the South of France and help him expose the truth. Stanley is attracted by the challenge and postpones his vacations with his fiancee to take the job.
Confusion and hilarity ensues when the tricky psychic proves to be more than Stanley’s match. His beliefs are rattled for the first time in his life and he even begins to accept that there could be, after all, an unseen spiritual realm that cannot be explained by science.
You can find in this movie glimpses of what makes Woody Allen one of the greatest directors of all time. His camera work is elegantly efficient. We don’t need majestic crane or aerial establishing shots (like Scorsese does in Hugo (2011)) to be immersed completely in this world and believe that we are set in 1920’s Europe. There are a couple of sequences where dialogue is sharp and resemble Allen’s best work. The awkward marriage proposal and Stanley’s constant soliloquies about the meaningless of life are particularly witty and hilarious. There is also this incredible scene were Colin Firth attempts to engage in prayer, that reminded me of the powerful repentance scene portrayed by Martin Landau in Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989), which has to be hands down one of the most powerful sequences in all of Allen’s body of work.
Cinematographer Darius Khondji (Alien Resurrection, Amour, Seven) works out a very naturalistic lighting approach, giving the film a weightless feel devoid of strong shadows or evident light sources. Woody Allen films are lit sometimes like bleak dramas, but this film is one of his most cheerful looking. The Cote d’Azur is photographed in all its splendor: vibrant, saturated and plain beautiful, evidently contrasting with Colin Firth’s existential verbose full of Nietzsche quotes.
Costume design is luscious and flamboyant, at the same level of high budget period pieces like The Great Gatsby (2013) and The Aviator (2004). Annie Seibel (G.I. Joe: The Rise Of Cobra) and Sonia Grande (It’s Complicated) did commendable work that wouldn’t surprise me if nominated for an Oscar.
Ironically, the magic is pretty thin in Magic in The Moonlight. Except for the few good scenes I just mentioned, the movie is pretty uninspired. Surprisingly, for a Woody Allen movie, the dialogue exchange between the characters is stiff and robotic in structure. The whole film is built upon blocks of each character exposing his/her views about the world, advancing the plot mechanically from one scene to the next. There isn’t really much conversation. It’s like Stone and Firth are in a contest to see who delivers more lines in one blow.
Particularly disappointing is Emma Stone’s part. Sophie Baker is a character with practically no evolution and Stone had to deal with weak and uninteresting lines. If you look closely, there is really nothing in the script to make her the target of Stanley Crawford’s affection. Emma Stone really struggles and does the best she can to make her character a woman you can fall in love with. If it weren’t for her huge gorgeous eyes and gangly demeanor, you really can’t find anything enchanting about the cunning spiritualist. The same happens the other way around. Colin Firth’s character really doesn’t do anything to grasp Sophie’s attention and enamor her. In all truth, the only reason Emma Stone has to fall in love with Stanley Crawford is to escape from the gullible son Brice Catledge (Hamish Linklater – Battleship ) and his dreadful ukelele.
The situations written to give them an opportunity to build up their attraction are dull and disgruntling. There’s even one scene where Colin Firth falls asleep in an observatory that is so lazily written it almost seems as if extracted from a student film. The whole romantic connection is forced, predictable, and plain uninspired.
What makes a romantic comedy work is the buildup of the relationship between the characters. Audiences have to cheer for them to fall in love. Their love needs obstacles and threats. In Magic In The Moonlight, the romance is so predictable and so unthreatened that we really don’t care. The flare that characterize Allen’s films is absent here.
As long as Woody Allen keeps managing small budgets, his films are going to be financed. He doesn’t need his movies to be blockbusters to recoup the investment, which means we will have plenty of the witty New Yorker in years to come. As long as he continues to work, the higher the probability of him delivering great sparks of genius like Blue Jazmin (2013) or Match Point (2005). For now, Magic In The Moonlight is a watered down version of Woody Allen’s best. It constitutes a pleasant, entertaining, yet predictable film that reminds us that love is irrational, but it’s a necessary illusion to make life worth living.