Film Review: “Magic in the Moonlight” — Recycling Made Charming

Despite Woody Allen’s recycling of old ideas and plot points, his actors give such strong characterizations that I tossed my skepticism aside and enjoyed the moonlit ride.

Magic in the Moonlight, written and directed by Woody Allen. In movie theaters around New England.

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A scene from Woody Allen's latest -- "Magic in the Moonlight."

A scene from Woody Allen’s latest — “Magic in the Moonlight.”

By Tim Jackson

Woody Allen’s new film Magic in the Moonlight is the story of a world-class magician named Stanley Crawford who, like Houdini and the Amazing Randi, is renowned as an ace debunker of spiritualism. Set in the 1920’s, Stanley performs under the name Wei Ling Soo in a droopy Chinese mustache and a silly bald-head wig. There is a real life basis for this character about which I am sure the director was aware: there was a magician named William Ellsworth Robinson. He appeared as Chung Ling Soo and wrote a book called Spirit Slate Writing and Kindred Phenomena. He died on stage performing the famous “bullet catch trick.”

I love this hokey world of spectacular magic tricks and extra-sensory shenanigans. Yes, Allen’s film leans on well-worn themes regarding reality and mysticism (and depends on echoes of characters found in his other movies). But, for me, the combination of magic and the British class system is charming, the cinematography of Darius Khondji is breathtaking and, most of all, this is a perfect cast.

As the film begins, Stanley is making an elephant vanish and then manages to have himself disappear and reappear at will. But, unlike his fantastical stage persona, the guy turns out to be a vain and ornery upper class prig. His less successful magician friend, Howard Burkan (Simon McBurney), comes to visit Stanley after the show. He has been confounded by a woman he believes may be a real mind reader. Howard is so baffled by the young female’s skills that he begs Stanley to reveal that she is a fraud. “Oh, I’ll expose her” insists Stanley confidently.

The clairvoyant in question is Sophie Baker (Emma Stone), who is staying with her mother (Marcia Gay Harden) at the Côte d’Azur mansion of the Catledge family. Both Grace Catledge (Jackie Weaver) and her son Brice (Hamish Linklater) are completely smitten with Sophie. Grace hears the right ‘knocking’ responses from her dead husband during Sophie’s séances, while Brice spends all his time serenading the apparent clairvoyant with his ukulele, hoping to woo her with promises of jewels and a carefree life full travel to exotic lands. Stanley, who claims he knows a scam when he sees one, grows increasingly astounded (and smitten) by Sophie and her inexplicable ability to know unknowable facts about himself and others. As the infatuation grows, his abrasive cynicism regarding the impossibility of a supernatural dimension falters.

All this is fairly predicable romantic comedy territory. You can feel the clichés about the wonder of existence pop open like the roof at the planetarium, where Sophie and Stanley stop to find shelter from a rainstorm. Will this young girl from Kalamazoo warm the cold heart of this pompous (much) older Brit? Will she help him discover the magic of the unseen? Of course. But a romantic romp can be very effective if gifted performers redeem improbable situations along with the cuddly predictability of the story’s archetypical characters. Despite my reservations about Allen’s personal issues and his recycling of old ideas and plot points, these actors give such compelling characterizations I tossed my skepticism aside and enjoyed the ride.

The predictable May-December romance, or potential romance, between Firth and Stone is amusing to watch. There are, amid a few clunkers, some wonderful exchanges. You can hear Woody’s voice in the bickering and anxious Stanley, but Firth makes these neurotic words his own. Unlike curmudgeonly Larry David in Whatever Works, or Kenneth Branagh and his Woody Allen impression in Celebrity, Firth remains as beguiling as he has been since 1995’s Pride and Prejudice. This is a farce, and he is really good at meeting its sweet demands. Allen’s women characters are his strength, particularly lately, given top-notch performances from Scarlett Johansson and Cate Blanchett. Continuing that winning streak, Emma Stone is attractive and appealing; she brings a charisma to the role that is gentle but somehow also focused. She comes off as relaxed as she was in the Easy A. Stone doesn’t give Sophie an aura of disturbing mystery; instead, the figure is peacefully resigned to her gift.

Equally good is the supporting cast, which whips up an indelible collection of hysterical British types. McBurney has great fun as Stanley’s devoted fellow magician. He is humbled by his friend’s greater fame and becomes visibly excited when he sees Stanley acknowledge the magic he himself has experienced at first hand. Hamish Linklater, as the foppish romantic heir to the family fortune, is so blinded by love that he won’t doubt for a moment that his silly love songs and wealth won’t win Sophie’s heart. Jackie Weaver, who was so frightening as the gangster grandma “Smurf” Cody in Animal Kingdom (and Oscar worthy as the forthright wife of Robert De Niro in Silver Linings Playbook), creates a detailed character without much dialogue. She brings her impressive comic skills to the contented matriarch, who hears just what she wants from her deceased husband during Sophie’s remarkable séances.

Now in his late seventies, Allen, for better and worse, has been churning out films lately at an astounding rate. Magic in the Moonlight is far from the writer/director’s best, but it is still great fun, especially given that the chemistry of his superb ensemble is so satisfyingly right.

Tim Jackson is an assistant professor at the New England Institute of Art in the Digital Film and Video Department. His music career in Boston began in the 1970s and includes some 20 groups, many recordings, national and international tours, and contributions to film soundtracks. He studied theater and English as an undergraduate and has also has worked helter skelter as an actor and member of SAG and AFTRA since the 1980s. He has directed a trio of documentaries: Chaos and Order: Making American Theater about the American Repertory Theater, and Radical Jesters, which profiles the practices of 11 interventionist artists and agit-prop performance groups. His third documentary, When Things Go Wrong, about the Boston singer/songwriter Robin Lane, with whom he has worked for 30 years, has just been completed. He is a member of the Boston Society of Film Critics. You can read more of his work on his blog.


  1. Shelley on August 4, 2014 at 5:09 pm

    Sometimes there’s a coldness lurking at the heart of a Woody Allen movie.

    I’m glad it sounds like that’s not true here.

  2. Luke on August 6, 2014 at 7:45 pm

    I always hope that the Woody Allen’s new film will be really good one. Sometimes he disappoints and sometimes he delivers. Given his output and the high quality of his best work, I can roll with that. I am happy to know that Tim Jackson, an excellent critic, likes Magic in the Moonlight and can actually focus on the movie itself.

    Jackson’s comments make occasional reference to the film within the context of Woody’s other work to some extent, but he does not waste too much time providing an analysis of the work within the arc of the director’s career or of his personal life and I appreciate that. It is one of the few reviews I have read that actually addresses the merits of the film instead of framing it as an exposure of Allen’s venality, a continuum of what they view as his narcissism or a sign of decay or portent of the disaster that surely awaits such a person and his career.

    I particularly enjoyed Jackson’s comments regarding the performances. He mentions that although Woody sometimes creates male roles that share some of his traits and neuroses that a really good actor such as Colin Firth is able to create his own interpretation of the character instead of channeling Woody Allen. That is a striking observation, one of many.

    Again, a smart and insightful review.

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