The director’s new film takes place on the French Riviera and stars Colin Firth. Is it just escapism for grown-ups? Film critic Owen Gleiberman takes a look.

Here's a theory: if you queried every single person who went to see John Turturro's Fading Gigolo, many of them would be still laboring under the delusion that they had seen ‘the new Woody Allen film’. That's not because Fading Gigolo was good. It was slipshod and daft, with a jaw-droppingly contrived novelty hook in the form of casting the 78-year-old Allen as a pimp. Yet all of that was more than enough to allow the film to ‘pass’ as one of Woody's own. The point of my theory is that even as Allen, in the last four years, has become a consistently successful indie-comedy giant – the horn-rimmed Godzilla of anti-blockbuster programming – most of his films, like Midnight in Paris and To Rome With Love, have been fluffy and innocuous: cloyingly fanciful fables and ‘sweet’ crowd-pleasers. (Last year's Blue Jasmine was the radiant exception: It was a major Allen film – his most bracing since Match Point.) So when I say that Magic in the Moonlight is another of Allen's light-fingered fairy-tale confections, let me be clear that the film is a real cut above the throwaway fare he's been making. Its fun has a pinch of heft to it.

The movie is set in France and Germany in 1928, and is a puckishly philosophical comedy that is also Allen's corkscrew version of a Cary Grant-style romantic chase. The central character, Stanley Crawford (Colin Firth), is a world-famous illusionist who keeps his identity under wraps by performing, in quaintly racist costume, as Wei Ling Soo, master magician of the Orient. We first see him on stage in Berlin, where he makes an elephant disappear and teleports himself from a sealed chamber to a nearby chair. All very delightful – but as soon as Stanley exits the stage and tears off his white-skinned bald cap and false fu manchu moustache, he's revealed to be a robustly sour British cad who treats everyone within earshot like an indentured servant and has nothing but contempt for the mass of humanity. That said, if you’re going to make your hero into such a poison pill, it helps to have him played by Colin Firth, whose soft, debonair grin gives even this joyless crank a jaunty melancholy.

Stanley is such a devoted misanthrope that when he isn't performing, he moonlights as a professional debunker of fake mystics. A great magician himself, he's a die-hard rationalist who is cynically invested in the notion that all magic is hokum. In Stanley's jaded eyes, there is no spirit world, nothing that can't be explained. So when he learns of the existence of a woman named Sophie (Emma Stone), who is said to be a psychic without peer, the challenge is set: Stanley must watch her perform in order to unmask her trickery. Surely she will prove a fake! Who is out to bilk her rich clients! Stanley's very worldview depends on it.

Illusions and delusions

But then he meets her on the French Riviera, and from everything he and the audience can see, she’s either the most extraordinary charlatan ever... or the real thing. Stone, with luscious alabaster skin and startlingly round, large blue eyes, holds her delicate hands aloft, right in front of her head, as if she were trying to catch the cosmic vibrations emanating from within. As Sophie gazes at assorted people, including Stanley, and tells them things about themselves that no one but they could know, Stone makes each revelation seem truly spontaneous, and the gentle gravity of her acting casts a spell. 

So does Allen's filmmaking. Magic in the Moonlight pings off the audience's desire to witness the uncanny, and it's not just our desire – it's Woody Allen's. The possibility of magic opens the door to the acceptance of the supernatural, the otherworldly and even the divine: all the things that Allen, the secular Jewish intellectual who deflates everything with wisecracks, generally stands against. Is he now saying that those things could be real? Or are they just comforting illusions? Or are they, in fact, illusions so grand and intoxicating and human and necessary that they end up creating their own reality? Even Stanley, as it turns out, is forced to acknowledge that the world may be a more irrational place than he could have admitted. Magic in the Moonlight generates a surprising tingle by disarming our scepticism and making us feel: yes, if only we could believe….

We want Magic in the Moonlight to be magical, to make our eyes go wide with enchantment, and for a while it does. But given it's a comedy about magicians both fake and possibly real, we also want it to be tricky, to have its way with us, as Allen did nearly 30 years ago in The Purple Rose of Cairo, his most perfect and beguiling bauble of a movie. And on that score, Magic in the Moonlight isn't quite tricky enough. It has one terrific twist, but the gamesmanship of reality and illusion doesn't build, as it did in Purple Rose. The film doesn’t use the power of magic to seduce the rationalists in the audience into believing in the glory of what we can't see.

From the outset, Sophie is smitten with Stanley. And she pursues him, trying to pierce his armour of diffident disgruntlement, the same way that Katharine Hepburn did with Cary Grant in Bringing Up Baby. The movie features a great deal of babble about love and romance, and about how they're the ‘real’ magic: the irrational part of life that makes everything else worthwhile. But all that talk – a replay of what Woody's movies have been saying since the famous last words of Annie Hall – isn't, by now, very magical, or even romantic. The love story of Sophie and Stanley ends up seeming like a kind of conceit, and while Stone is wonderful in the early scenes, instead of developing as a character, her Sophie seems, ironically, to have fewer layers the more that she's revealed. Magic in the Moonlight is Allen's most gratifyingly airy concoction in a while, but it's also a comedy that insists, in the end, on making an overly rational case for the power of the irrational.


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