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Sunday, August 17, 2014

Review: Magic in the Moonlight

Woody Allen has made a ton of movies, and a lot of them are damn good. He goes through phases: the super silly comedies, the comedic dramas, the psychological dramas, and most recently, the European city romances. This newest set of films has been a bit hit or miss: while Vicky Christina Barcelona and Midnight in Paris were great fun, To Rome with Love and You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger were just so-so. He seems to have dropped his muse in Scarlett Johansson and may be looking for a new one...so does Emma Stone (or Colin Firth) fill that role?

Magic in the Moonlight has a fairly simple premise: Stanley (Colin Firth) is a famed magician who performs under the disguise of an Asian mystic, but is an egomaniac and a debunker of any kind of real magic in the world. He is brought on to reveal Sophie (Emma Stone), a supposed telepath and communer with the dead, as a fraud, but gradually comes to believe in her impossible feats. Things, of course, get more complicated as the two find themselves having feelings for each other as Stanley's view on life begins to change.

The premise is a very good one, a classic way to pit two competing philosophies against each other to see what happens. There are some really clever moments, and Allen doesn't sugarcoat the magic aspect while the audience is still trying to figure it out, so we really come to believe as naturally as Stanley does. He is fascinated and enamored with Sophie, but only under the pretension that her supernatural talents have changed his worldview–he sees her as an object of wonder rather than a human being, at least at first. The best bits come from Firth's comedic delivery and reluctance to admit his irrational feelings for Sophie; when she asks if he finds her attractive apart from her wondrous talents, he replies quickly that, in the right light, only sometimes, she looks alright. Colin Firth is charmingly obnoxious as he refuses to believe, and he fits in the world of southern France in 1928.

Unfortunately, those comedic bits, which are the true highlight of the film, are relatively sparse. Mostly we focus on Stanley's back and forth beliefs, and little happens in the second act of the film that's worth spending 2/3 of the movie on. The resolution comes very suddenly and feels rushed. And that would be fine–and fitting with some of Allen's best films–if the second act romance had a little more chemistry and a lot more pizazz. 

As many have already commented, having a romance between a young girl and a man literally more than twice her age is not off to a believable start. The chemistry between Firth and Stone is just not really there, partly due to the lack of character development for Sophie in the script and partly due to Stone's out of place performance. Maybe she's just too prevalent in recent movies to be truly believable as a girl in the 1920's, but there's just something that doesn't jibe. It's almost like the movie itself doesn't really believe in the romance, as it kicks in quite suddenly and late with just a little prodding from the plot.

Overall, it's a decent movie that fits in with Woody Allen's recent ones: it's an interesting time period in an interesting locale with an interesting plot, but with a somewhat lackluster casting choice and some narrative pacing issues. But perhaps I'm being too harsh simply because of the backlog of truly terrific films by Allen–it's an enjoyable experience and it's easy to get sucked into his world of jazz and magic, but it's just not an entirely memorable movie. If you're looking for a diversion from the end of the Summer blockbuster, this will do just fine.

Rating: B+
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