“Magic in the Moonlight” is as lightweight as you can expect from a minor Woody Allen film. Although it is not as impressive as “Midnight in Paris”(2011), it is a nice fluffy diversion from his previous work “Blue Jasmine”(2013), and its pleasant mood and performances compensate for its rather thin story which becomes less interesting especially during its second half.
It is 1928 in London, and the opening scene shows the magic show of renowned Chinese illusionist Wei Ling Soo, who is actually a British guy named Stanley Crawford(Colin Firth). As a lifelong skeptic who does not believe in ghosts and afterlife, Stanley has debunked a number of spiritualists, and now it seems he finally comes to face someone who may be more than a match for him. His colleague illusionist Howard Burkan(Simon McBurney) met a young medium who has been impressing a rich American family with her psychic ability, and Stanley becomes intrigued when Burkan confides to him that he could not find any evidence to debunk her.
After cancelling his trip to the Galapagos Islands with his fiancée, Stanley immediately goes down to Côte d’Azur in France with Howard, and he is introduced to Sophie(Emma Stone) and that rich American family in question. While Grace(Jacki Weaver) believes that Sophie really can communicate with her deceased husband, her daughter Croline(Erica Leerhsen) and her son-in-law George(Jeremy Shamos) think Sophie is a fraud, and they are naturally worried about Brice(Hamish Shamos), Grace’s only son who is apparently smitten with Sophie and is probably going to marry her sooner or later.
After meeting Sophie and her business-minded mother(Marcia Gay Harden), Stanley becomes more suspicious about her, but it looks quite possible that Sophie really has psychic ability as she claims. She senses Stanley’s disguise right from their first encounter(he is introduced as an importer friend of Howard), and then she soon sees through the motive behind his visit. During her séance, Stanley witnesses a seemingly improbable happening right in front of his eyes, and then he finds his skeptical view being further shaken by another happening at the house of his aunt Vanessa(Eileen Atkins).
The movie could be more fun if it toyed more with this interesting conflict between belief and skepticism, but it takes a mellower route instead as Stanley quickly changes his adamant view on spiritualism and then finds himself drawn to Sophie more than ever in spite of the fact that she stands for everything he did not believe in at all. As Sophie points out correctly, he and his fiancée look like a good, rational match, and the same thing can be said about Sophie and Brice, but Stanley’s heart does not feel so – and neither does Sophie’s heart, perhaps.
This is a familiar trouble we already observed from many other characters in Allen’s works, and the movie strolls lightly with its two contrasting main characters while immersing itself into the warm, sunny atmosphere of the south region of France. The cinematographer Darius Khondji, who previously collaborated with Allen in “Midnight in Paris” and “To Rome with Love”(2012), fills the day scenes in the film with the soft, bright light of summer days while nicely capturing gorgeous locations on the screen, and that carefree mood of the 1920s is recreated well through handsome production design and costumes while several well-known period songs such as Cole Porter’s “You Do Something to Me” are effectively used in the soundtrack. As watching many dancing guests and a big jazzy orchestra band during one party scene in the film, you may expect to encounter F. Scott Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda, who were incidentally two of the significant supporting characters in “Midnight in Paris.”
As the lead performers, Colin Firth and Emma Stone play off each other well during their scenes. Firth has a fun with his character’s lofty and acerbic aspects during the first half of the film, and Stone, who is currently working with Allen in his next film, gives a breezy performance fueled by her own charming screen presence. There is a lovely scene in which their characters happen to spend some time together at an observatory during one evening, and it does not take much time for us to sense what is going on between them.
The other actors surrounding Firth and Stone do not have lots of things to do in comparison, and that is another weak aspect of the film. Hamish Linklater looks goofier whenever he appears with his ukulele, and it is a bit disappointing to see talented actresses like Jacki Weaver and Marcia Gay Harden playing thankless roles in the film – but they were probably glad to get a chance to work with Allen at least. In the case of Eileen Atkins, she has juicier moments as Stanley’s wise aunt, and she is especially good when Vanessa has a private conversation with her nephew on the current matter of his heart; she does not say what he should do, but she subtly lets him make a choice while maintaining the attitude of your average prim British lady.
I have some reservation on “Magic in the Moonlight” because of its several flaws including its weak ending which is less successful than intended, but I also found it likable enough to recommend it to you despite that. Sure, maybe I am a little too kind to this minor work from a director who made great films such as “Annie Hall”(1977) and “Manhattan”(1979), but I can assure you that you can enjoy this movie if you have been generous with his recent minor works like me(Yes, I was even entertained by “Scoop”(2006) – but I was bored by “Cassandra’s Dream”(2007)). Now approaching to 80, Woody Allen has already moved onto his next project as usual, and I’m willing to go along with that after this small fun.