Woody Allen’s “Magic in the Moonlight” is a “serious” movie attempting to be lighthearted. It deals with the same issues that Allen’s idol, Ingmar Bergman, often grappled with – namely, the battle zone of reason versus mysticism – but offhandedly. Allen himself has long diddled with these issues in his movies and writings. He keeps returning to the scene of the crime, poking around for fresh clues.
Set in the 1920s, mostly on the gorgeous Cote d’Azur in the south of France, “Magic in the Moonlight” is about a famous magician, Stanley Crawford (Colin Firth), whose face is known to his public only as the Chinese conjurer Wei Ling Soo. A brittle and belligerent egomaniac, Stanley, all rational all the time, takes a special pleasure in debunking the claims of spiritualists. When he is approached by a magician friend of his (Simon McBurney) about an American clairvoyant, Sophie Baker (Emma Stone), who seems like the real deal, Stanley takes up the challenge of unmasking her.
Sophie and her domineering mother (Marcia Gay Harden) are ensconced in the Riviera villa of Grace Catledge (Jacki Weaver), an American widow who wants to communicate with her dead husband and is more than willing to fund a “foundation” to trumpet Sophie’s gifts. Grace’s ukulele-toting son, Brice (Hamish Linklater), a harmless twit, is also gaga for Sophie and wants her to marry him. (“She’s a visionary and a vision,” he coos.) For Sophie, who grew up poor, all this Gatsbyish glamour is eye-popping, but she has a core of shrewdness. She doesn’t need any fancy powers to size people up. But is she a fake?
Allen plays out the scenario as a variant on Shaw’s “Pygmalion,” with Stanley as the imperious Henry Higgins flummoxed by Sophie’s low-born but radiant Eliza Doolittle. We can see where this is going, even if Stanley can’t. Taken in by her charms, he declares that he has been all wrong about the nonexistence of God and the spirit world. He is seized by a newfound feeling: happiness.
Firth is effective as the insufferable Stanley, who is ripe for his comeuppance from the very first time we see him haranguing his help backstage after a performance in Berlin. Stanley would seem to be Allen’s own worst (albeit comic) version of himself: a man whose fear of the unexplainable, of death, has sapped his life of any true joy. Sophie lowers his guard and raises his consciousness. He goes gaga, too.
For all its sun-kissed charms, “Magic in the Moonlight” has a rather schematic view of magic. Allen posits Stanley and his cohorts as brainiacs unbudgingly opposed to the existence of a spirit world (until Sophie shows up, that is). The notion that science might be a way into magic, that it might enhance rather than degrade the search for glories in the great beyond, is never taken up. For Allen, rationality is bloodless.
If Stanley was shown to be someone who secretly coveted the idea of God and an afterlife, his capitulation to Sophie would have had more emotional heft. As it is, his conversion is too quick and not terribly believable. Also half-baked is the budding (sort of) romance between Stanley and Sophie. We never see in Sophie the capacity for wonder, or the respect for reason, that might have complicated her presence. Either way, real or fraud, she’s the film’s heroine.
As usual, Allen fills up his cast with name actors and then gives most of them glorified walk-ons: Weaver and Harden especially have precious little to do. The magic of a fully developed ensemble cast seems to have eluded Allen once again.
As a conjurer, which is what all artists are, Allen realizes that movies are simply another form of alchemy. But magic tricks have to be seamless to be believable. “Magic in the Moonlight,” for all its airy felicities, offers a few too many unintended peeks behind the curtain. Grade: B (Rated PG-13 for a brief suggestive comment, and smoking throughout.)