“Magic in the Moonlight” Casts its Spell
(3 popcorns )
By Michael S. Goldberger
Special to the Observer
It is an annual cinema treat Woody Allen fans anticipate with gleeful curiosity. First rocking our funny bones with “Take the Money and Run” (1969), like Old Faithful the director has knocked them out like sausages. Approaching octogenarian status, with “Magic in the Moonlight” he again sets us to categorizing. Is it full genius funny, whimsically philosophical, filled with metaphors alluding to his controversial relationships, or just generously witty and wise?
Of course this newest offering, like almost all of Woody’s films, has love at the heart of its intelligent ruminations. You know… the confounding mysteries, the effervescent joys, the nagging uncertainties, and a liberal sprinkling of the je ne sais quoi. You see, he’s going to discern this wondrous enigma yet, this vexing bliss that hath no true synonym, or die trying. Should he be successful, we’ll be the first to know.
Attempt #49 takes us to the Roaring Twenties where Colin Firth’s brilliant magician, Englishman Stanley Crawford, in the stage persona of Wei Ling Soo, plies his illusions to worldwide acclaim. He suffers no fools. Save for a small coterie limited to a childhood friend, a favorite aunt and his fiancée, he disdains everyone. A nonetheless likable snob, he is a Henry Higgins, certain of his take on life and doubtlessly cruising for a comeuppance, if not a bruising. We hope his expected epiphany is painless.
Allen paints the backdrop with gentility and subtle splendor. It’s an era of good feeling and prosperity for those characters with whom we’re apprised, the makings of another world war hardly imaginable. Into this playground for the bourgeoisie and better, Mr. Allen injects a charming little tale of intrigue, which soon commands our highbrow prestidigitator’s attentions.
It starts as a challenge…a bit of detective work only a wizard of Stanley’s virtuosity might undertake. Howard Burkan (Simon McBurney), fellow magician and only pal, brings it to light. You see, there are these swells he knows, Grace Catledge (Jacki Weaver) and her son Brice, nouveau riche Pittsburghers lavishing their steel wealth across England and the continent. Well, they might be the unwitting victims of a con, a self-professed seer who’s ingratiated herself.
Gee…Emma Stone’s Sophie, by every other estimation the girl next door from Kalamazoo, sure doesn’t seem like an opportunistic fraud. But then neither did Barbara Stanwyck’s Jean Harrington in “The Lady Eve” (1941), and it wasn’t long before she won the affections of Henry Fonda’s heir to a brewery fortune. In any case, asking a favor whilst appealing to Stanley’s ego, Howard entices the cynical realist to unmask the lass.
In what plays like a parlor dramedy, we are witness to no less than two of the séances Sophie conducts for the well-to-do Catledges. There, Grace’s vanity is pleased, her loneliness temporarily allayed when contact is purportedly made with her deceased spouse. The tycoon assures the matron he was faithful. Everyone but Stanley is amazed, although on first blush he can’t detect a ruse. Rich boy Brice is given to effusive compliment, his adulation bubbling in an unabashed froth of puppy love.
It’s not hard to figure where this is going… or so you think. We are politely placed on tenterhooks. Miss Stone and Mr. Firth establish winning chemistry, thrusting and parrying their wits and emotions within the Eden-like aura Woody Allen is so adept at fashioning. Jaunting about the English countryside in a period proper Alfa Romeo sports car, blithely second-guessing each other’s stratagems to a jazz score accompaniment, the winsome duo pique our romantic sensibilities.
A storied master of casting, the auteur populates his scenario with superbly painted subordinates. Each adds a character-driven oomph to the exposition. Hamish Linklater’s humorously supercilious Brice, doggedly seeking Sophie’s hand, knows no world other than the one he promises her…a decadent idyll filled with yachts and exotic locales. Simon McBurney is classical as the Brit sidekick, appropriately sycophantic in his professed adulation of the vocational superior.
Supplying the all-important moral anchor, Eileen Watkins is Vanessa, Stanley’s dowager aunt, a loveable old gal who raised him, and heretofore his only object of reverence. She knows her little boy and considers it a duty to regularly remind him of his overbearing snobbery, lest it become a tragic flaw. The relationship serves as a catalyst, spurring the gambit at hand to unleash a bevy of Allen’s favorite contemplations, but tellingly excluding death this go-round.
I’ve noted ad nauseam that if Woody Allen had lived before the invention of film, he would have surely gained fame as a playwright/philosopher. Via his comedies and dramas, he tackles the stuff of what it’s all about, this business of being human. With “Magic in the Moonlight” the sorcerer proves he still has a delightful trick or two up his cinema sleeve.
“Magic in the Moonlight,” rated PG-13, is a Sony Pictures Classics release directed by Woody Allen and stars Colin Firth, Emma Stone and Eileen Atkins. Running time: 97 minutes