Sunday, August 17, 2014
Magic in the Moonlight
Woody Allen's Magic in the Moonlight is an example of what the right actors can do to elevate a script that needed a polish. In 1928, Stanley (Colin Firth) enjoys a successful career as an illusionist under the name Wei Ling Soo. Stanley performs in an appropriately ridiculous costume, though his identity is somewhat of an open secret. (This movie isn't exactly The Prestige when it comes to plot twists.) After a performance as Wei Ling Soo, Stanley shows no hesitation about berating an assistant as he changes clothes in full view of everyone including his fellow illusionist Howard Burkan (Simon McBurney). Burkan asks Stanley to come to France in order to help unmask a young woman named Sophie (Emma Stone), whom he suspects of trying to swindle some wealthy Americans with her fake psychic abilities. Stanley is possessed of the cold realism about a life beyond our own that runs through Allen's work back to Crimes and Misdemeanors and probably farther. He agrees to help expose Sophie, and the game is on.
Magic in the Moonlight isn't ashamed of its late period qualities; there are familiar Allen tropes aplenty (Stanley's worldview, a fascination with magicians, period jazz) recycled in a new setting that at least offers some antique cars and pretty views of the South of France. There's a ball that Darius Khondji photographs like a painting and costumes that cold have been borrowed from a museum, but it's the performances of the two leads that finally makes the movie a pleasure. Colin Firth's natural fussiness is perfect for Stanley. Firth seems to know just how far to take his performance before the character begins to fall in love with Sophie and things go the other way. There is a moment when Stanley considers prayer as his beloved aunt (Eileen Atkins) lies in hospital. Just as we think we're about to witness a conversion, Stanley's true nature reasserts itself. It's a small piece of screen acting that's as fine as anything I've seen Firth do, and it helps ground a high-flown movie in something real. Emma Stone might be a little too modern to play a 1920's girl, and she's clearly smarter than the script means the character to be, but that's the point. Sophie is the future, here to drag Stanley into the next phase of his life, and Stone plays her with an effortless charm. I wish both Firth and Stone had been given better material to work with. 10 or 15 years ago Woody Allen would have made Magic in the Moonlight tighter and funnier, too much of the dialogue is redundant and the scene where Stanley realizes he's in love with Sophie is interminable. Yet the two leads play off each other well and overcome Allen's limitations. Magic in the Moonlight may be a case of Allen repeating himself, but there are enough warm and familiar notes here to make the effort worthwhile.