REVIEW WRITTEN BY NATHAN LERNER
For 21st Century Media
Once upon a time, the upper west side of Manhattan was the customary setting for Woody Allen’s films. However, Allen’s films became problematic commercially. To secure financing from foreign backers, he was required to transplant the films to locations abroad.
As a consequence, “Magic in the Moonlight,” is set on the French Riviera during the 1920s. The protagonist is not the nebbishy, neurotic New Yorker, who Allen has played in many of his own films. Instead, the lead character is a prim and proper Englishman. Stanley Crawford (Colin Firth) is a magician, who has adopted the stage persona of a Chinese conjurer, Wei Ling Soo. He has amazed audiences, performing such feats as making a giant pachyderm disappear before their very eyes.
Off-stage, Stanley is committed to debunking the notion of spiritualism. He considers those who practice it to be scam artists and those who succumb to their chicanery to be pathetic dupes. He imperiously proclaims, “The gullible are so stupid they deserve it.” This pronouncement reflects Stanley’s smug, condescending perspective on the human race.
In the film, Stanley is contacted by a childhood friend and fellow stage magician, Howard Burkan (Simon McBurney). Howard alerts him to the fact that a young American, Sophie Baker (Emma Stone), and her dour mother, (Marcia Gay Harden) have shown up at the Cote d’Azur estate of the Catledges. This American family has grown fabulously wealthy through the machinations of their deceased, industrialist patriarch. Purporting to be a clairvoyant psychic, Sophie had convinced his widow, Grace (Jackie Weaver), that she can put her in touch with his spirit. Meanwhile, her ukulele-strumming son, Brice (Hamish Linklater) has swooned over the fetching young woman. Grace is about to endow an institute devoted to psychic research, to be operated by Sophie’s mother. Meanwhile, Brice is on the cusp of proposing to Sophie.
The clever script involves an ongoing exchange of barbs between supposed antagonists, Stanley and Sophie. However, I never discerned much emotional chemistry between them. This distracted from the dynamic tension of whether Stanley will be able to expose Sophie or will be bewitched by her instead? The film ends up being a lightweight depiction of the battle between rational empiricism and a credulous belief in spiritualism. What is disconcerting about this divertissement is that it attempts to mount a rational argument in support of irrational belief systems.
In his youth, Allen was an amateur magician. He is steeped in the history of legerdemain. The film’s protagonist is modeled on a 19th century Brooklyn-born magician, William Ellsworth Robinson. He performed throughout the world, under the pseudonym of Chung Ling Soo. This was a permutation of the name of his archrival, an actual Chinese magician, Ching Ling Foo. Robinson always scrupulously maintained his Asian stage persona in public. At press conferences, he pretended that he could not speak English, communicating only through an interpreter. Robinson wrote, “Spirit Slate Writing and Kindred Phenomena.” In it, he exposed many of the ploys employed by phony spiritualists.
Through much of Woody Allen’s screen career, he often portrayed the romantic lead, most notably opposite Diane Keaton and Mia Farrow. The gap between his age and some of his other objects of desire was often quite wide. In “Manhattan,” this disparity became pivotal plot point. Allen’s angst-ridden, middle-aged character became fixated with an upbeat high school student, portrayed by Mariel Hemingway. In “Hollywood Ending,” he tried to revive the erstwhile relationship with his ex-wife, Tea Leoni. She portrays a woman nearly three decades younger than Allen’s character. Their age gap was glossed over. In “Magic in the Moonlight,” the fifty-three year old Firth is cast opposite the 25-year-old Stone. I make no judgments about the propriety of their relationship. I subscribe to the notion that whatever two consenting adult choose to do together is entirely their prerogative. However, it is curious that the screenplay never acknowledges this salient fact that the two prospective paramours are separated by a full generation.
“Magic in the Moonlight” is enriched by its production values. Shot by Darius Khondji in wide-screen 35 millimeter, the film makes excellent use of natural lighting. The production design by Anne Seibel creates a strong sense of time and place. It conveys the self-indulgent lives of the leisure class during the jazz age. The soundtrack adroitly mixes classical compositions by Ravel and Beethoven with American standards by Cole Porter and Rogers & Hart contemporaneous with the film’s era. Another nice touch involves German cabaret singer, Ute Lemper, providing a rendition of, “It’s All a Swindle.”
Allen has had a prolific career as an auteur. He continues to crank out a film a year. Next year, Allen will become an octogenarian. He is scheduled to celebrate it with the release of his forty-fifth feature. You have to admire his continuing dedication to filmmaking. However, you can’t ignore how remarkably uneven his body of work is. It ranges from his high point, the Academy Award-winning masterpiece, “Annie Hall” to the succession of five successive duds at the commencement of the millennium. This culminated with a career nadir, the unbearably bad “Melinda and Melinda.” Since then, he had managed to stage a remarkable comeback. Interspersed between decidedly lesser works, “Match Point,” “Vicky Christina Barcelona,” and last year’s “Blue Jasmine” all shot by Allen when he was already in his seventies, are arguably among his finest ever.
Placed in the historical context of Allen’s extensive oeuvre, “Magic in the Moonlight” does not approach the caliber of his top-tier endeavors. Despite the evocative title, it lacks the magic found in Allen’s best work. Instead, it is a well-acted, intermittently amusing, trifle.
“Magic in the Moonlight”
*** PG-13 (for a brief suggestive comment, and smoking throughout) 97 minutes
Nathan Lerner sees more than 200 feature films a year. He welcomes feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org.