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With: Emma Stone, Colin Firth, Marcia Gay Harden, Hamish Linklater, Jacki Weaver, Simon McBurney, Eileen Atkins
Written by: Woody Allen
Directed by: Woody Allen
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for a brief suggestive comment, and smoking throughout
Running Time: 97
Date: 07/25/2014

Magic in the Moonlight (2014)

3 Stars (out of 4)

How's Tricks?

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Woody Allen's Magic in the Moonlight -- by my count his 45th film -- is about two things. It's about the question of whether true magic exists in the world, or whether everything can be explained by mechanics and science. And it's about the wonder of love, and about how, though we might try to control it, sometimes the heart wants something totally illogical. I think it's remarkable that a 78 year-old man is still thinking about these questions, especially a man that has been through so many accusations and so much judgment.

Not too long ago, Allen's films went through a dark period and then reached a kind of peaceful acceptance. But then, unexpectedly, he was somehow renewed and Midnight in Paris (2011) became the biggest hit of his career. That movie believed in magic and love as much as if it had been made by a wide-eyed, big-hearted 24 year-old.

Magic in the Moonlight doesn't work quite as well, but it's certainly a very smart, funny, and charming movie that leaves you feeling happy. I think the main problem with critics of Allen's films is that they invariably compare any new Allen film with some of his masterpieces, of which there are many. When the new works come up short, as they frequently do, they are deemed failures. But taken as a new American comedy and compared with things like Blended, Sex Tape or Tammy, Magic in the Moonlight seems positively brilliant. (Not to mention that, unlike most of this summer's bloated movies, this movie runs only 97 minutes: a perfect length for a comedy.)

Colin Firth stars as Stanley, otherwise known as his professional stage name, Wei Ling Soo. He's a popular stage magician in the 1920s who can make an elephant disappear and can teleport unseen across the stage. After a show, Stanley receives a visit from an old friend and colleague, Howard Burkan (Simon McBurney). Howard explains that he was asked to look into a medium, who has been staying with and receiving money from a rich family in the south of France. He was supposed to expose the medium as a fake, but failed. (Part of the plot seems borrowed from Tod Browning's Miracles for Sale, which I just saw for the first time a few months ago.) Now he wants Stanley to give it a try.

Stanley agrees mainly so he can visit his beloved Aunt Vanessa (a wonderful Eileen Atkins), who lives nearby. The medium arrives, big eyes and wonderful smile peeking out from under a summer hat. Her name is Sophie (Emma Stone), and she's undeniably charming. Stanley is caustic and abrasive, shoving disdainful certainties and clever insults at everyone around him, but as he spends more time with Sophie, he begins to subtly melt. The pair of them dodging a rainstorm inside an old observatory is one of the film's delightful highlights. Hamish Linklater co-stars as a smitten youth, who only knows how to serenade Sophie with a ukelele; it's the same joke again and again, but it works for a while.

We briefly meet Stanley's fiancee, not long enough for her to be a real character, but rather an idea of a well-chosen and logical mate. Stanley continues to argue her merits over the more elusive merits of Sophie, but begins to lose the battle. (Aunt Vanessa wryly assists him in these diatribes.) Firth is wonderful here as the familiar "Woody Allen character," but more elegant and upright, and with a nastier wit. Ms. Stone is also naturally vivacious; she's more of a star than an actress. (That's a compliment; she's close in spirit to the Diane Keaton of Allen's earlier films.)

Weirdly, some of the supporting characters here never really come to life. Marcia Gay Harden, who has been one of our best actresses, seems stifled in the role of Sophie's mother. The same goes for Jacki Weaver, who -- as the clueless, wealthy widow -- simply repeats over and over again how much money she'd like to donate to Sophie's foundation. Allen has such a reputation for creating great women's roles that it's a wonder why these two amazing actresses came out so empty handed.

Part of Allen's personal re-charging is that he seems to draw inspiration from new locations outside his beloved New York. This time the south of France provides him with many open-air landscapes, with green lawns and gentle rains. It's a film that you feel you could actually breathe in. Firth's barbed dialogue and his sparring with Stone make a humorous contrast to the lovely backdrops.

So, yes, once again I'm calling a "minor Woody Allen" which does not imply "bad Woody Allen." Plus, if you're an Oscar nut, I'm predicting some buzz for Ms. Atkins. Magic in the Moonlight is very much worth seeing, especially if you like pretty scenery, magic, love, and laughs.

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