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Magic in the Moonlight

This is another one of those weekends when I refuse to dignify the new releases in any way. Things are so bad that between two CGI disaster films — one directed by Jonathan Liebesman with Michael Bay producing, and the other directed by some Roland Emmerich wannabe — I’m forsaking both to see a film directed by a semi-incestuous pedophile. Yes, it’s time for another Woody Allen film.

Magic in the Moonlight is set primarily in the south of France, during the summer of 1928. Colin Firth plays Stanley, a world-famous magician who operates under the faux Asian persona of Wei Ling Soo. You see, Stanley is also a top-notch magic debunker who finds that magicians are much more likely to reveal their secrets if they don’t know who he is. And also, casual racism could be brushed off as mere theatrics back in the day.

Stanley is approached by an old colleague (Howard Burkan, played by Simon McBurney), who has recently tried and failed to prove a young psychic as fraudulent. Sophie Baker (Emma Stone) has taken the patronage of a wealthy old widow (Grace, played by Jacki Weaver) who utilizes Sophie’s help in contacting her deceased husband. Even better, Grace’s dim-witted son (Bryce, played by Hamish Linklater) has become so enchanted with Sophie’s beauty and paranormal abilities that he’s set to marry her and invest the entire family fortune into her occult studies.

So Stanley goes to meet Sophie and the two engage in a battle of wits as he tries to prove her a charlatan. Hilarity ensues.

First of all, I’ve never known Woody Allen to be a slouch when it comes to visuals. His skills with a camera are still sharp as ever, and each frame looks incredible. I was also very fond of the production design, with lavish costumes and sets.

The film’s second MVP is Colin Firth, who delivers the most comically likeable grump that I’ve ever seen since… well, his Mr. Darcy, come to think of it. Stanley is a relentlessly logical pessimist who takes every opportunity to proclaim that metaphysical/religious beliefs are a waste of everyone’s time. Yet his dispassionate and inert worldview is conveyed with such quick wit and withering sarcasm that he’s very entertaining to watch. Of course, it also helps a great deal that Stanley isn’t really malicious; he simply can’t stand the thought of people living in false hope, clutching onto blatant lies instead of living life as it really is.

Then we have Emma Stone, who crushes it as Sophie. The character’s psychic moments are sublime, played with just the right amount of camp. Her telepathy is acted out in such a way that it could just as easily be fake as completely sincere. The moments are funny, of course, but never so funny that Sophie (or Stone) becomes the butt of the joke. It all comes back to the character’s charm, which is completely effortless in a way that’s too good to be true. Basically put, the character is portrayed with enough intrigue to show that she has a secret, but it’s anyone’s guess as to whether that secret is paranormal or mundane in nature. And of course, Stone is so impossibly radiant from start to finish that it’s easy to see why so many fall for her (and her act). Very well done.

Unfortunately, the side characters don’t fare nearly as well. Aunt Vanessa (Eileen Atkins) is a snarky old lady with nephew Stanley wrapped around her finger, but all the other supporting characters are hopelessly bland and boring. Marcia Gay Harden (here playing Sophie’s mother) is an especially bad case in point — anyone else could’ve played that role without making a difference. And yes, I realize that this is chiefly by design, since the other supporting characters are supposed to be rubes falling for Sophie’s psychic act, but that doesn’t make them any more interesting to watch.

The two lead characters are easily the best part of this film, but they don’t come out unscathed either. They both suffer terribly from character development that gets switched repeatedly from one extreme to the other without any provocation. There were so many times in the third act when I thought I’d get whiplash from all the sudden and unexplained shifts in the characters’ attitudes.

This brings me to the lamentably weak script. I’m deeply sorry to say that the dialogue, pacing, and character development are all far below the standards I’d expect from Allen. The plot also has some glaring holes, which I suppose is to be expected with this premise. More unforgivably, the plot is terribly predictable, which is a tremendous setback for a film about magic.

The film deals with all matter of themes regarding the conflict of logic and emotions, science vs. magic, etc. It’s like the movie is a tribute to those comforting lies we tell ourselves to get through life, either as entertainment (like magic shows, or *ahem* movies), or as religion. The filmmakers show a lot of interest in stating that humans are inherently irrational creatures, so small in the grand scheme of things that our understanding of reality is tenuous at best.

These are all very compelling ideas. The problem is that they are not addressed in ways that are interesting, creative, or funny.

Magic in the Moonlight is less than the sum of its parts, and it really saddens me to say that. The cast is solid, the visuals are gorgeous, and there are some truly fascinating ideas at play, but the characters and the script just weren’t there. The character development and pacing are both terribly broken, and the film wasn’t nearly as funny or creative as I would have liked.

That said, some good moments of humor are certainly there. Also, Firth and Stone put in lead performances that are worthy of a much better movie. That’s definitely enough to warrant a rental, I should think.

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