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Magic In the Moonlight

July 25, 2014
Magic In the Moonlight

It was bound to happen sooner or later: Woody Allen finally turned out a pretty good movie again. Not great, mind you — this isn’t Manhattan or Crimes and Misdemeanors — but Magic in the Moonlight is a charming little period romantic comedy.

Wei Ling Soo is one of the most famous magicians of the 1920s, bringing the Mysteries of the Orient to European audiences. He’s actually an Englishman named Stanley (Colin Firth), who has a sideline as a debunker of self-proclaimed spirit mediums. His old friend Howard (Simon McBurney) shows up after a performance in Berlin, with a tale about a particularly hard case.

It seems a charming young medium named Sophie (Emma Stone), traveling with her mother (Marcia Gay Harden), has latched onto a wealth American family Howard knows on the French Riviera. The widowed matriarch (Jacki Weaver) mourns the lost of her industrialist husband; young, dopey Brice (Hamish Linklater) has fallen head over heels, serenading Sophie with his ukulele at every opportunity. Of course, Stanley knows there’s no way Sophie is “the real thing”, since there’s no such thing as the real thing “from the séance table to the Vatican”.

So Stanley sets to exposing her as a fraud, staying with his nearby Aunt Vanessa (Eileen Atkins). But a funny thing happens: Sophie seems to have some actual talent. Right off, she asks Stanley if he’s from China, and something else about Germany. A candle floats at a séance, and Howard can find no strings or wires suspending it. When Sophie meets Aunt Vanessa, she uncovers the spinster’s long-ago love affair with a member of parliament. It’s eerie. Faced with such strong evidence, Stanley must reconsider his solidly, dourly materialist worldview.

Firth is a natural as the grumpy, no-nonsense debunker. He’s charmingly insufferable and in desperate need to have some of the wind taken out of his sails. And when Stanley is deflated, Firth delivers his turn towards the wonder and magic of life perfectly.

Of course, Allen shoots a very pretty picture, and the jazz he loves fits perfectly with the Gatsby-on-the-Riviera setting. His awkward stabs at blue-collar characters in Blue Jasmine are hopefully behind him now; everyone here — even Sophie and her mother — oozes with class. The dialogue is clearly Allen’s, but it seems he’s brightening up from his own nebbishy past here.

Rest assured, though, that Allen has not himself turned dewy-eyed mystic. If you’re at all familiar with con movies you’ll see the counter-turn coming a mile off, but it’s delivered so neatly it’s hard to mind how obvious it is. Besides, the movie isn’t really about the surprise so much as Stanley’s dialectic arc, and that works as well as any character Allen has ever written.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.

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