Stanley Crawford makes his living with smoke and mirrors. As a world-renowned magician, he travels around Europe in the late 1920s billed as Wei Ling Soo, the Chinese wizard of the Orient who enthralls packed houses with a magic show that involves nothing less than making an elephant disappear, sawing a woman in half, and a neat trick in which he enters a sarcophagus on one end of the stage and then emerges from the other end. All this while dressed in a get-up that he might have been purloined from Ming the Merciless.
Off-stage Stanley is a snobbish, self-satisfied cynic who scoffs at his audience and sniffs at the idea of anything that isn’t grounded in scientific reasoning – he practically worships the writing of Nietzsche. For him, the great philosopher’s assertion that “God is Dead” is the closest thing to scripture that he is likely to even touch. Stanley is an expert at fooling the eye, so it pleases him to reason out anything that could be confused as spiritual or other-worldly. In his down-time he amuses himself by debunking psychics, those oddly dressed people who attend séances where they supposedly speak to the dead. When his old magician friend Howard (Simon McBurney) makes him an offer to debunk the work of a young psychic who appears, against all odds, to be the real deal, Stanley can’t wait to poke holes in her mystical façade.
Safe to say, this is the kind of plot that Woody Allen can juggle in his sleep. Magic in the Moonlight is an imperfect but genuinely good-hearted movie about a man whose world view is shaken when he is confronted by something that he cannot reasonably explain. It’s not Allen’s best work, but like all of his work it’s not about plot so much as it’s about characters. This time he has found a great asset in Colin Firth who gives a terrific performance that I’m afraid will be overlooked. Firth is something of an expert at playing the insecure stick-in-the-mud with an inability to break away from grounded reasoning, yet possesses a good heart that he claims he has no use for.
Howard’s offer is tempting. He wants Stanley to accompany him to the south of France to debunk a supposed mystic named Sophie Baker (Emma Stone) who may or may not be taking advantage of a gullible rich American family. The family is a bunch of dupes. The wide-eyed family matriarch (Jackie Weaver) is delighted at the prospect of Sophie being able to contact her late husband, while her foppish son worships Sophie and persistently writes songs of love the he plays on his ukulele.
What strikes Stanley is that Sophie is convincing. He’s amused during their first few meetings because she spends much of the time with her eyes glazed over and her fingers affixed to her temple. He’s not fooled, but when she begins to reveal facts about his own private life, cracks form in his resolve. It doesn’t help that Sophie is – I’ll say it – easy on the eyes. She’s charming in a way that brings down Stanley’s guard especially when she unexpectedly plucks his heart strings.
The point of the movie is not abundantly clear at first. It is kind of up to the viewer to catch what is not being said. Stanley makes his living as manipulator, but he’s being put into a situation in which he is slowly being led to believe things that he has previously dismissed. All of it comes from feminine manipulation. Is Sophie playing him, or is she the real deal? Whatever it is, she’s touched his heart and he starts to lose his perspective. He’s also, unknowingly, being led by another influence in his life, his Aunt Vanessa (Eileen Atkins), a kindly widow who plays more of a part in Stanley’s decision making then he realizes. Watch her late in the film as she sits at the dining room table playing solitaire with Stanley just behind her. Her eyes are glued to her game while he tries vocally to sort out his confused feelings. Notice that with just slight variations of commentary and word play, she almost makes up his mind for him. It’s a subtle and perfectly modulated moment.
Magic in the Moonlight is the kind of sweet confection that Allen usually makes between more serious projects like Blue Jasmine and Match Point. It might be considered a throw-away. It runs on too long and tends to make its point over and over, but it’s not a waste. I’ll take Woody Allen’s mediocre films over other director’s hits any day. This is a nice, sweet movie with a good heart and good performances. Yeah, it could be better but when it’s over you’re ready for Allen to get serious again.