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Where is the Magic?: A Review of “Magic in the Moonlight”

He’s made forty-three films over the course of his career and we still can’t help but feel that warm feeling of anticipation co-mingled with nostalgia, as the dark screen fills with white lettering and the music begins to play. The film’s title, spelled in a familiar non-italicized Windsor typeface, prepares us for an expected hour and a half of amusement, followed by “Written and Directed by Woody Allen.”

Joining Allen’s oeuvre among comedic masterpieces like Annie Hall and Zelig, Magic in the Moonlight is a comedy set in Southern France in the late 1920’s. It stars Collin Firth as Stanley Crawford, a world-class master of illusion dedicated to debunking claims and reports of real magic, alongside Emma Stone as Sophie, a young American clairvoyant who has managed to convince a family of obscenely wealthy Americans living large in the Cote d’Azur, the Catledges, that she possesses psychic abilities. At the behest of his childhood friend and fellow magician Howard Burkan (Simon McBurney), the exceedingly cynical and conceited Stanley—who manages to quote Hobbes, Freud and Nietzsche in the first five minutes of the film—relishes at the chance to unmask Sophie for the charlatan that she must certainly be.

Predictably, to the point of cliché, Stanley falls for Sophie’s magical abilities, and for the young woman herself, within a day of arriving, as Allen presumes any older gentleman engaged to be married must after spending a weekend with an eccentric, free-spirited woman twenty years his junior. Cue Disneyesque heartwarming happy ending. Allen’s obsession with May-October relationships, apparent in a lot of his work in Manhattan in 1979—in which he co-stars as a twice-divorced 42-year-old comedy writer dating a 17-year-old girl—and spanning his whole career, is, frankly, a bit weird. The age gap between the leads probably contributed to the actors’ lack of chemistry on screen. Magic in the Moonlight attempts to be both a comedy and an existential lecture on reason and man’s search for wonder. It fails horribly at both.

The film opens with promise: on the scene, an elaborately “oriental-themed” stage, Stanley, dressed as his alternate persona Wei Ling-Soo, delivers his famous disappearing elephant trick with appropriate mystical flair. The colors are dazzling, setting the scene for a magical performance, but the rest of the movie is all colors and window dressing, with a paper-thin plot. As far as production design and cinematography go, the movie offers an alluring picture of roaring twenties indulgence and a heavy dose of nostalgia. Southern France is exquisite in summer and I was entertained throughout by the lavish sets and finely tailored costumes. The director pays close attention to detail, from the beautiful automobiles you wish you could drive, to the historically accurate outfits.

Granted, Allen adorns every scene with gorgeous landscapes and exquisite costumes, but the movie plays out like a bad episode of Mad Men. Instead of building toward a satisfying climax and denouement, Allen expects us to be dazzled with the magic of the scenery and the wardrobe, forgetting he never satisfyingly developed the rather bland and predictable story. While the scenery and the homes in which the Catledges reside might make you want to put on a white evening jacket and fly to Monaco, they do not hide the fact that the film is not funny. The film is not bad—it is cute and visually pleasing—but the audience is left disappointed because it could have been so much better. It seems that Woody is no longer trying; one wonders if the recent media attention that his personal life has garnered, allegations of his abusing his stepdaughter, distracted him from delivering another success.

The chemistry between the two leads is warm at best and the romance seems underdeveloped; Stanley seemingly falls in love with Sophie simply because she is young and vivacious. As with almost every element of the film aside from the aesthetics, the romance is not completely implausible, but could have benefited from greater depth. It seems entirely unlikely that an engaged man in his fifties would fall in love with an odd, much younger woman whom he clearly considers his intellectual inferior. The relationship doesn’t develop over the course of the film; rather, Stanley has a moment of epiphany while speaking with his elderly Aunt Vanessa, when it suddenly dawns on him that he has feelings for Sophie. Because the audience doesn’t see the romance develop, we find it implausible. The dialogue too is underdeveloped—it is not dry or awkward, but the audience gets sick of Firth’s dry cynical quips, and when his character discovers the “magic,” his rapid about-face is far-fetched. His egomaniacal and pompous character is irritating and elicits little sympathy.

Stone delivers her psychic reading by entering a wide-eyed fugue state and wildly flailing her arms, catatonically delivering facts about Stanley she couldn’t possibly know, overplaying the character’s vulnerability and naiveté. If the attempt was to show the audience how even self-proclaimed militantly scientific men will believe what they want to hear, that effect was lost on me. Sophie’s psychic readings are so banal, and Stanley so ready to believe her, that the predictability left me waiting for a surprise twist that never materialized. The supporting actors gave much better performances, Eileen Atkins playing Stanley’s eccentric Aunt Vanessa and Simon McBurney delivering in a great role as Stanley’s friend Howard Burkin, who supplies the “magic” that winds up being more than initially meets the eye. All in all, though, the effect is not one of poor acting, but poor plot progression and character development.

The film is a visually pleasing period film, and for someone who wants to watch a movie for beautiful historical sets and costumes, it is worth a watch. But the comedy was almost non-existent, and the audience within my view laughed a total of two times. Devout fans of Woody Allen’s work will not leave angry, but likely disappointed. There are familiar elements that scream classic Woody Allen, but Magic in the Moonlight can’t compare to some of his better work. In his effort to release a film every year, it seems Mr. Allen has sacrificed quality for quantity. For a student on a budget in New York City, I would not suggest paying the exorbitant theater ticket price to go out and see it, but perhaps wait until the film’s home-release, buy some snacks and watch it with a friend. Just keep your expectations low.