“The world may or may not be without purpose. But it isn’t without a bit of magic.”
Perhaps because I went in not expecting much (given its mixed reviews), I found Magic in the Moonlight quite charming, indeed (despite that awful poster!). Everything I expected to put me off – the story, the casting, the acting – won me over in the end.
Colin Firth, channeling his long-lost Darcy in his more charming moments, is Stanley Crawford, a rigid, logical man of a certain age who happens to be one of the world’s best known magicians (it’s 1928, where celebrities found their fame in media other than iPhone sex tapes). Nightly, he deludes people into believing he just transported himself across the stage or disappeared an entire elephant. Because he knows every trick in the bag, he prides himself on being able to expose the trickery of purported mediums and spiritualists, all the rage of the time.
Enter Sophie Baker, played winningly by Emma Stone, whom no one can seem to find fault in. Her ability to channel the spirit world, conduct a successful seance and know more about your life than should be possible has a wealthy British family enamored, and Stanley’s childhood friend and fellow magician enlists his help in debunking her “gifts.” What ensues is a predictable romcom as threatening as the bark of a puppy and as enjoyable to look at as a fine lace.
I remained skeptical for the first third of the film, as the set up and exposition seems never-ending. We are reminded ad nauseum that Stanley and Howard (Simon McBurney) have been lifelong friends. We’re told quite blandly that Baker and her mother (Marcia Gay Harden) are visiting the Catlidge family; that the heir to the family’s wealth (Hamish Linklater) has fallen for Sophie, that Mrs. Catlidge (Jackie Weaver) is desperate to contact her dearly departed husband. I can only ascribe this lazy first act to Allen’s longevity. I imagine after 44 films, I’d be sick of the set-up, too, and want to just breeze through it with some easy dialogue.
By the second act, we’re into the thick of things – though, admittedly, things never get much thicker than a silk scarf. There’s a cringe-worthy scene in which Sophie – until now a whisp of a woman Stanley easily dismisses as, if gifted, still inconsequential – speaks up for herself. But the cringe is in Stanley’s disconnected, completely humiliating (for Sophie) response, not in the pacing, placement or existence of the scene.
And this is where the magic lies in Magic. In keeping the clip of filmmaking Allen does, it makes sense that not every film can be a Midnight in Paris, or even a Blue Jasmine. Some are To Rome with Love, or Scoop – leaden, dead-on-arrival things that suffer from poor (if creative?) casting and stale delivery and (sorry, Woody) contrived, disingenuous stories. Though the romance of Magic doesn’t elevate to that of Paris and Firth is no Blanchet, Magic falls comfortably above Rome and Scoop. Both Firth and Stone manage to take Allen’s words – which, in the wrong actor’s hands (ahem, Ellen Page) can wind up sounding hollow and forced – and deliver nuanced, charming characters they inhabit fully.
Though the reveal (spoilers: no one can contact spirits) is a bit contrived, even its resolution isn’t so wacky as to lose the audience. The May-December romance, stirring some understandable controversy given its writer’s personal circumstances, may elicit a wince or worse if one stops to think about it. But that’s exactly what Magic doesn’t ask you to do. Like the illusions Stanley and Sophie put on for their audiences, Allen’s illusion here is effective and enjoyable if ultimately transparent.