Mark Reviews Movies

Magic in the Moonlight


2 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Woody Allen

Cast: Colin Firth, Emma Stone, Marcia Gay Harden, Hamish Linklater, Jacki Weaver, Erica Leerhsen, Simon McBurney, Eileen Atkins

MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for a brief suggestive comment, and smoking throughout)

Running Time: 1:37

Release Date: 7/25/14

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Review by Mark Dujsik | July 24, 2014

Woody Allen is not exactly an optimist, and if that isn't apparent by now, the first act of Magic in the Moonlight certainly clarifies it. The central character is an avowed atheist and determined skeptic who would like nothing more than to expose a charlatan mystic. He'd especially like it if that fraud involves convincing people that there is some spiritual realm of existence. If the sham brings people comfort, the task is all the more satisfying for him. He sees ghosts and spirits and souls and an afterlife and a higher power as a bunch of phooey. If unmasking a con artist makes a believer question his or her faith to even the slightest degree, he is a happy man, even if it is only a temporary joy in an existence that he wholeheartedly deems to be meaningless.

The movie, which was written and directed by Allen, is set in 1928—a year before the Great Depression would start—and primarily in the south of France, where the people live in grand estates on acres of land and have few worries of any kind. They tolerate the pessimistic Stanley (Colin Firth), a man who has done quite well for himself as a stage magician (Unlike his perception of mystics, he doesn't think he's scamming his audience because they know his work is harmless trickery; it's an act for entertainment, not a false sense of greater insight into the universe). Maybe in a year or so during a global economic crisis, they would find themselves sympathizing or even agreeing with his worldview.

In this time and at this place, though, Stanley is an outsider. When he cites the decades-old writings of Nietzsche, the thoughts are still novel to them. Freud's work is gaining traction, as indicated by the fact that one of the characters is a psychoanalyst. People want to improve their way of life and are more than content with the conventional ways of thinking, especially in matters of the religious or the spiritual.

When Stanley shows up to discredit a mystic at the insistence of his friend and colleague Howard (Simon McBurney), the professional debunker is a pent-up ball of angst and cynicism. His acerbic wit cuts through the things he perceives to be nonsense. He's the hero, but he is also the comic foil. He might see those who buy into the mysticism of a woman named Sophie (Emma Stone) as naïve, ignorant fools, but Stanley is outnumbered. The people around him are happy with things the way they are, and to his great frustration, they don't care if someone tries to burst their bubble.

Sophie impresses them with séances featuring knocks on the table from the spirits of departed loved ones and a levitating candle. She seems to pull information that she could not know from the miasma of an unseen world. Sophie appears to be the real deal, and Stanley is flummoxed by her technique.

He tries and tries to determine her methods and, as politely as he is able, mocks the very notion that her psychic skills are legitimate. Nothing works to convince anyone of his viewpoint; these people are unmovable. You can yell at a brick wall to move an inch until you are exhausted and your throat is numb. The wall isn't moving. Eventually, you might start to see things from the wall's point of view.

There is, of course, something inherently, funnily absurd in the utter desperation of such devotion to an unwinnable cause. The intellectual becomes quite the fool when he faces the seemingly inexplicable. Firth plays the role with just the right amount of frustration and righteous indignation.

Less funny—and even less convincing—is Stanley's moment of surrender to the unshakable beliefs of his "inferiors" and the results. It may simply be because the explanation for the Sophie's apparently preternatural abilities is so glaringly obvious, but Stanley's inability to see what is right in front of him is—from what we know of the man—uncharacteristically shortsighted. Allen's screenplay never makes a persuasive argument that this character would fall for what's really happening here.

More importantly, once the screenplay makes its most dramatic turn, Allen seems uncertain of where to take the story and Stanley. For a short time, it is amusing to see a cynic become a hopeless optimist about the world. He points out that he never really smelled flowers before his revelation, and being the egoist that he is, Stanley assures Sophie, who becomes an unlikely romantic interest of sorts, that his capacity for appreciating these little moments is superior to those who have always known such small pleasures. Even in a state of comparative humility, Stanley is still a self-centered braggart.

The joke quickly runs dry, and faced with a rather untenable shift in his main character, Allen really has no choice but to return Stanley to normalcy. It's a form of narrative and thematic whiplash that does an unfortunate disservice to both. There is a point to the back-and-forth-and-back-again, in which Allen tries to find some assurance in a worldview he has reinforced through a process of dismissal and return. Magic in the Moonlight fooled us once, though, and there's no reason to be fooled again.

Copyright © 2014 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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