As Woody Allen movies go, Magic In The Moonlight is middling. It’s nowhere near his worst, nor does it stand with his best.
The film takes place in the twenties, where we meet Stanley (played by Colin Firth), a debunker of spiritualist frauds, who also happens to be a magician. He performs incognito as the world-famous Wei Ling Soo (who, incidentally, is a character based on a real magician, named William Ellsworth Robinson, who performed back in the late eighteen hundreds and early nineteen hundreds as Chung Ling Soo. Just, y’know, FYI).
One night after a show, Stanley’s longtime friend and colleague Howard (played by Simon McBurney) arrives backstage and begins to tell him about the latest spiritualist he’s met. Simon brings Stanley in when, as is the case here, he’s unable to work out how a particular medium is deceiving people. Stanley vows to expose her and the two set off immediately for the French Riviera.
The fraud (or is she?) in question is Sophie, played by Emma Stone. Upon first meeting Stanley, she quickly senses he has some connection to “the Orient.” As Stanley’s identity as Wei Ling Soo is a closely-guarded secret, he is flummoxed. He gets even more confused after attending one of Sophie’s séances later on. He sees things he can’t explain, and is unable to uncover any signs of trickery.
The film goes on like this, always leaving you guessing about whether Sophie could really be legit or if there’s something more banal at work. It’s the kind of plot line that works perfectly for Woody Allen. His previous films have featured plot elements like ghosts and time travel, so a woman with a connection to the afterlife doesn’t feel at all far-fetched.
In terms of performances, the bulk of the heavy lifting is done by Firth and Stone. Firth is excellent at straddling that line between being charming and being a pompous ass. Despite his over-inflated sense of self importance, Stanley is a likable character. He’s witty, and wit goes a long way in my books. As Sophie, Stone projects an appealing mix of innocence and guile. “You think you’ll trick me into showing you how I deceive people,” she teases Stanley at one point. And you can’t quite tell if she’s just playing with him or not.
The supporting cast of Magic In The Moonlight also performs admirably. Marcia Gay Harden is Sophie’s overprotective mother. Hamish Linklater plays a rich, ukulele-strumming, tunelessly-singing fool who’s hopelessly in love with Sophie. And nearly stealing the film as Stanley’s much-loved aunt Vanessa is Eileen Atkins.
So where does it all go wrong?
For me, the ending comes off as flat. When all is said and done, the conclusion doesn’t feel truly earned. It’s a classic, “have your cake and eat it too,” scenario. It’s not bad enough to ruin all the good that came before it, but it does put a serious damper on things. End the film five minutes earlier, and everything would’ve fit together sensibly.
In the end though, there’s just too much to recommend. The script is funny, the period costumes and sets are charming, the whole film (photographed by Allen’s frequent collaborator Darius Khondji) looks lush and, well, magical.
I said at the outset this is a middling Woody Allen film, and that’s true. But in the skilled hands of this cast and crew, middling is good enough.