July 24, 2014
By Pete Barell
Arts and Entertainment Editor
Woody Allen has written, directed and occasionally starred in one film a year since 1977. If you can’t do the math: he’s made well over 35 films in that time. The feat is fortified by his consistency of quality. Most recently, Cate Blanchett went home with a Best Actress Academy Award for 2013’s “Blue Jasmine”, and the film received a myriad of other nominations, including Best Original Screenplay. One can anticipate an Allen film every year, and it has become fairly easy to identify his signature style, especially in his latest offering.
“Magic in the Moonlight” is very much a Woody Allen film. The story takes place on the scenic southern French Riviera in the late 1920‘s (an era the director already visited in 2011‘s “Midnight in Paris”). It is smothered in his usual neurotic, cynical, philosophical characterization. Wei Ling Soo, the alias of snobbish Stanley Crawford (Colin Firth), is a prestigious stage magician whose act is lauded for being technically superb. For the act, he hides behind layers of makeup and prosthetics that make him look Chinese, setting up the overarching themes of the film immediately: illusion and identity. He is deeply observant and willing to speak his mind – the character is reminiscent of the director’s own classic 1970‘s and 80‘s acting, except with a neater, more precise British charm.
After being tipped off by a friend, the atheistic Stanley sets out to visit and disprove of an alleged spiritualist from America, named Sophie Baker (Emma Stone) whose “mental vibrations” have gotten her hired by the wealthy Catledge family to contact their recently diseased patriarch. Sophie is able to pick up impossible psychic impressions (such as personal family histories she could know) stumping Stanley and bringing his godless beliefs into question. They develop an odd friendship, wavering from quasi-flirtatious, to accusatory, as Stanley desperately tries to understand how different the world may actually be if Sophie is not a fake. He is a man of logic. She may defy logic.
Allen is arguably his strongest when tackling the romantic comedy genre ( “Annie Hall,” “Manhattan,” and a handful of others). “Magic in the Moonlight” showcases his ability to create quirky, flamboyant settings for his characters to meander into love. Firth and Stone fit well together, maintaining an energetic, back-and-forth relationship that echoes the filmmaker’s early work. Stone’s character, having risen from the lower-middle class, to being romantically courted by her male bourgeois clients, adds a classic fish-out-of-water aspect to the film. These are characters that captivate the audience with quick-moving conversations, and make us desperately want to keep up with them. Yet, it is often hard to do so.
The filmmaker is known for his loaded, often culturally relevant dialogue. This aspect, though, is not for adamant realists – every word, every joke seems highly calculated, making the film feel like a stage-play, sometimes even like a fantasy. “Magic in the Moonlight” feigns pulling any real dramatic punches in the long-run. It lapses into a neat formula towards the end, almost echoing Golden-Age Hollywood. Perhaps this classicality to the story was fully intentional, since there is a romanticism inherently built in to its roaring 1920’s setting. That isn’t to say the film is not enjoyable. Allen’s dialogue-centric, ping-ponging comedy, despite free-wheeling expressionism, is refreshing amidst the overwhelming glut of physical, cringe and toilet-humor in mainstream cinema. Allen once again proves that he’s still a compelling writer and director, never short of ideas – especially his iconic wit.
“Magic in the Moonlight” opens in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago on July 25, followed by nationwide expansion. It will screen at Lincoln Plaza Cinema at Broadway and W. 63rd Street in New York City.