“Magic in the Moonlight” Offers Charm Without Substance

Magic in the Moonlight

Magic in the Moonlight (Woody Allen, 2014)

Woody Allen’s new film is as delicious and amusing a confection of cinematic delights as any he has made in the past 20 years. Filled with gorgeous shots of the French Riviera – often bathed in the fading rays of magic hour – from master cinematographer Darius Khondji (Se7en, Midnight in Paris), Magic in the Moonlight is a visual marvel, well served by the fine lead performances from Colin Firth and Emma Stone. Unfortunately, it is not well served by an ultimately pedestrian script burdened with a foreseeable plot twist that leads to the inevitable (and distasteful) union of an older man to a much younger woman (not quite shades of Manhattan, but still problematic and not particularly believable). Isn’t it time we start demanding more than the same tired clichés?

We are in 1928. Stanley (Mr. Firth), a world-famous magician (who goes by the stage name of Wei Ling Soo, Orientalism being in fashion then) is approached by an acquaintance on a mission. It seems as if some mutual friends have fallen under the spell of a young American medium, Sophie (Ms. Stone), and it turns out Stanley is a noted expert at unmasking spiritual frauds. Will Stanley travel to the south of France to expose the pretender? Of course! And so off he goes, incognito (no one must know that he is the famous Wei Ling Soo), to the charming mansion in which Sophie has so comfortably settled, senses and cynicism on full alert, prepared to destroy the young lady. But a funny thing happens on the way to battle, as Stanley – a lifelong bachelor only recently engaged – finds himself enchanted, rather than repulsed, by Sophie. Is she real? Is Stanley’s conversion real? Does he love her? Does she love him? Or is it all a game, where no emotions are genuine?

For a while, the film works – and is, in fact, very entertaining – largely thanks to the solid performances from the leads and the supporting players, which include a very funny Hamish Linklater, an icy Marcia Gay Harden and a ditzy Jacki Weaver, among others. But the central romance at the center of the story – in spite of the considerable charms of both Mr. Firth and Ms. Stone – just doesn’t work. At no time does their budding attraction the one for the other feel anything other than pure screenwriting conceit. As the film moves away from Stanley’s initial misanthropic cynicism (something Mr. Firth perfected in his work in “Pride and Prejudice” and Bridget Jones’s Diary) to later genuine hope and feeling, the script devolves into hackneyed romantic-comedy conventions, and we lose interest. In the end, though magic there may have been, it was in the beautiful light of Khondji’s images and not in the writing.

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