Saturday, August 16, 2014

Magic in the Moonlight Movie Review

Jack English
There may not be a filmmaker more grounded in realism who also frequently touches on elements of magical realism than Woody Allen. Here is a man who has a strong philosophical view of life, death, and existence, who seems resigned to the idea that what you see is what you get and that there is no deity or afterlife. Here is a man who dabbled in magic tricks as a boy and who grew up to become one of the late 20th century’s most important and prolific generators of the greatest magic tricks of all – motion pictures. For what are the movies but an illusion? Not only are the stories told fictional tales through which we, the audience, have a chance to live out fantasy wish fulfillment, but the physical process of film projection is a series of still photographs presented in such rapid succession that it gives the illusion of movement.

Woody Allen is a magician – one who has taken us to Depression Era New York, contemporary London, Barcelona, Rom, and Paris (and from that last to 1920s Paris and back in one film). He’s transported us to 19th century Russia, the distant future, and now in Magic in the Moonlight, to the south of France in the 1920s. His protagonist this time is Stanley, another in a long series of male protagonists who serve as Allen’s surrogates. In the form of Colin Firth, however, we don’t have to endure yet another actor among a list that has included Kenneth Branagh, Jason Biggs, Will Ferrell, and John Cusack donning the Allen cap. Stanley embodies those parts of Allen that adhere to a strictly realistic and earthly worldview.

As a professional magician operating under the stage name Wei Ling Soo and appearing made up as a Chinese man, Stanley is a creator of illusion who know all the tricks of the trade and so as a hobby also works to unmask tricksters and frauds who would take advantage of the naïve and innocent. Stanley doesn’t believe in any sort of other-worldly spiritualism, afterlife, psychics, or extra-sensory perception. And he is adamant about it. He is also somewhat fanatical and neurotic about it and here’s where Firth takes the essence of the stock Woody Allen character and makes it something we haven’t seen before. Firth’s Stanley is charming and elegant on top of a cracked surface that conceals beneath a little boy just dying to continue living out childhood fantasies if only someone or something could prove to him that there’s more to life than death. He is neurotic without being whiny. He is pessimistic, but dashing and charming.

Stanley is called into action by his childhood friend and fellow magician Howard Burkan (Simon McBurney), who invites him to the Cote d’Azur home of wealthy American socialites who have fallen under the spell of a psychic medium named Sophia (Emma Stone). She works her wiles under the wing of her mother (Marcia Gay Harden), who serves as sort of manager and stage mother. Those who have succumbed to her charms include Grace (Jacki Weaver), the widow of an American businessman, and her son Brice (Hamish Linklater), the heir to the family fortune who is not only smitten and infatuated with Sophie to the point of constantly serenading her with a ukulele, but is also rather dim-witted. Stanley’s job is to identify Sophie’s tricks and expose her for the fraud she must be, where Howard was unable to, because she is apparently that good.

Stanley also has a knack for alienating people with his curt and dismissive comments that oftentimes are at odds with people’s strongly held, if phenomenal, beliefs. He is unsuccessful initially in identifying her tricks, but is convinced he will sniff them out. In an organized séance to contact Grace’s dead husband, he still can not locate the source of the knocking that is the spirit’s method of communication, nor the manner in which a candle levitated from the table. Still, he insists it’s all just mechanical trickery even as he admits that the more he observes her, the more baffled he becomes and begins questioning his certainty about the world. Could this be because he’s actually spellbound and enchanted by her charms in spite of all logic and reason? Not being one to ever govern his life by the heart, he’s quite poor at reading his own feelings.

That’s an issue his aunt Vanessa (Eileen Atkins) has something to say about. Stanley’s beloved aunt lives several miles away on the French coast and he finally becomes convinced of Sophie’s gifts when she mysteriously knows things about Vanessa’s past she could not possibly know. He then switches almost instantaneously to a man with a bright and sunny outlook on life. This proof of a spiritual world opens his eyes to things he’d been missing. He even admits that he has always desired this kind of proof to drag him from the funk of believing that life has no meaning. In a way, eh was primed to buy into the magic all along. He’s a character who could represent all of us who go the movies. We know it’s not real, but we ache for those moments to be swept up in a fantasy to help us forget for a few hours what is happening in our own lives. And sometimes that fantasy can actually affect us and cause us to reevaluate things as it does for Stanley.

He is one of the better and more in depth male characters Allen has written, but the area where he typically excels is in his female characters. Unfortunately here he falls short of even his lesser efforts. Sophie is a plot device more than a fully-formed woman of her own. She exists in the story to improve Stanley’s existence, to help him on his journey toward enlightenment. Weaver and Harden are wonderful actresses, but again, Allen gives them little to do with their characters. Aunt Vanessa, on the other hand, has something to offer in the form of an elderly woman who has seen much of life and the world. Atikins is one of the best things going in this movie and she brings Vanessa to vibrant life.

This is some of Allen’s most visually splendid work. He and cinematographer Darius Khondji capture the Cote d’Azur with its shimmering beauty and golden sunsets. The costuming and sets represent the best taste of the upper echelons of European high society during that period. There’s always something lovely on screen even when Firth and Stone are not present.

Although this is one of Allen’s lesser efforts, it is no less enjoyable. It’s just lacking some small spark that might have sent it soaring. Perhaps it’s a little too insistent in its clash of philosophies, Stanley being a little too dogmatic. And then his conversion to full on believer happens abruptly without skepticism. Granted, this is a short movie that needs to make things happen, but a dramatic reversal of that sort is drawn out over time. Still, it’s a constantly pleasing film and a perfectly respectable addition to the enormous and growing Woody Allen library.

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