Magic in the Moonlight (Film Review)

Woody Allen’s infatuation with The Jazz Age perpertuates with this pleasant and enjoyable offering.

I think it would be slightly unfair to call Magic in the Moonlight “below par”, but as always with Woody Allen (even in this recent period of restored critical reverence) you always wonder what to expect with his new films because every Midnight in Paris – charming, elegant, brilliant – seems to be followed by a To Rome With Love – pleasant enough, but unsure of itself, uneven, and thin.

So now Allen follows last year’s devastating and gorgeous Oscar-nominated drama Blue Jasmine with something that understandably never even attempts to reach for those heights or pack that punch. Magic in the Moonlight, Allen’s 724th feature film is a 1920s-set romance that pits skeptic stage illusionist Stanley (played by Colin Firth who takes a Woody Allen impersonation to new, delightfully snobbish heights) in a battle of wits against psychic medium Sophie (the confident and graceful Emma Stone).

As a Woody Allen fan, what I admire about his work, besides his humour, his insight and his peculiar narrative dynamics, is his ability to shrink his films and mould them into a form of his own – his output to me resembles a series of small paintings on a gallery wall – compact, concise, with a sprinkling of dark wit and easy-to-digest philosophical arcs. The level of impact (and perhaps effort) varies from picture to picture, but for fans at least, the experience is nearly always gratifying.

Allen is in a familiar nostalgic mode here – the 1920s period is generated with impressive sets, costume, and a vibrant palette which suggests this is most likely a labour of love. With its whimsical tone, expository dialogue and dreamy soft focus, the film displays an indulgently classic Hollywood feel – I want to say it reminds me of the 1942 screwball comedy Back of My Hand but I haven’t seen it, and it doesn’t exist.

As Stanley (AKA the oriental master illusionist ‘Wei Ling Soo’) undertakes the task of debunking Sophie’s apparent attempts to connect with the spirit of a wealthy socialite’s deceased husband on the French Riviera, we are presented with the conflict between Stanley’s brand of depressive, nihilistic, materialist scepticism, and Sophie’s happy-go-lucky, naive, positive spirituality. Allen has often wrestled with his own atheism on screen (Hannah and Her Sisters, for example), and here Sophie offers us the Nietzschean nugget “We need our illusions in order to survive”.

Not only does Allen compare the initially obvious counterparts of a magician’s stage act and a psychic’s fraudulent ‘seance’ – but also throws in Psychoanalysis (obviously) as another abstract parallel. Add to that, the whole escapist, magical concept of cinema itself, and then ultimately of course, love. It is this aspect (the romance between the two leads) which is undercooked (perhaps deliberately). Allen’s camera constantly sits in its default position – a few steps away from the drama, adopting a slightly mocking tone and head-shaking cynicism, but still tends to hint at sentimentality and wonders at the magic.

Like the Coen brothers’ underrated but admittedly flimsy caper Burn After Reading which followed the roaring success of No Country For Old Men – this latest offering is no Blue Jasmine, but is instead a sweetly nostalgic and concise comedy – Woody Allen at his most simple, his most whimsical, but nowhere near his most satisfying.