Woody Allen is one of the only directors in existence to have such a large body of work that is comprised of some of the greatest films of all time, and some of the absolute worst. In his later career, his films seem to bounce back and forth between really great (Match Point ) and laughably terrible (Scoop ). Magic in the Moonlight is this year’s follow up to last year’s critically acclaimed, Oscar winning Blue Jasmine. This seems to be in keeping with his rollercoaster of a film roster.
Moonlight takes place in the late ‘20s, and follows the world-renowned illusionist Stanley (Colin Firth) as he agrees to help his friend out by debunking the supposedly psychic Sophie (Emma Stone). In typical curmudgeon fashion, Stanley refuses to believe in anything other than the so-called facts of life. He uses his skills as a magician to watch Sophie’s actions to look for her mistakes. As he spends more time around her, he finds it harder and harder to find the faults in her “powers.” She exposes countless intimate stories about his life and his family’s life that Stanley knows she would have no way of knowing. He is then convinced she is not a fraud, and a little too suddenly he turns from skeptic to optimist, even going so far as to dress in full white as if to aesthetically corroborate his newfound joy of life.
The predictability of this film is shameless. Even just watching the trailer, one can deduce that the Stanley the non-believer will be won over by the charming Sophie. The “twist” of it all being that Stanley’s close friend and fellow illusionist Howard (Simon McBurney) devised the whole thing as a practical joke because he was jealous of Stanley’s career. But wait. You mean to tell me Stanley has fallen in love with Sophie through this whole process? And he wants to be with her despite the fact she pulled a fast one on him? Oh, and it also bears mentioning that the film’s deep, underlying message is that we all need some lies in our life to get through it. Stanley finally accepts this, and realizes that his love for Sophie is kind of like a magic trick that he just can’t seem to figure out.
Was this really written by the same person responsible for films like Sleeper (1973) and Hannah and Her Sisters (1986)? In conjunction with the banal directing, the writing seems to go even further into the depths of Allen’s worst material. For one example out of many, did we really need a character who happened to be interested in psychology to lace the narrative with extreme exposition, supplying us with everyone’s motives?
Even the ostensibly strong casting decisions couldn’t keep this movie afloat. Firth’s usual charm and stoic nature just comes across as crass and obvious here. Likewise, any lure that Stone usually has seems to be completely missing, making her performance one that is forgotten every time she leaves the screen. The chemistry between the two is awkward, mismatched, and entirely unrewarding. The film ends on a very abrupt note, almost as if Allen himself realized there was no point in continuing the film any further. One can only hope that he sticks to his good-film-bad-film formula and that his untitled project set to come out next year will make up for this embarrassing flop.
Magic in the Moonlight opens today in Philly area theaters.
Author: Catherine Haas
Catherine Haas is a native Philadelphian who received her master’s in film history from Columbia University. She is a freelance film programmer, writer, and an avid pug enthusiast.