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Even a middling Woody Allen movie is better than most, which is exactly the case with his 2014 release, Magic in the Moonlight. Following the heavy drama and acting clinic of Blue Jasmine, the iconic filmmaker dispenses with any notion that he's going to go on some mystical winning streak after 2011's Midnight in Paris. Allen never makes movies for critics and that has been made even more obvious with Magic, a 1928-set period piece that Ernst Lubitsch would have got a kick out of.
Magic kicks off with, obviously, a magic trick. To the booming sounds of Stravinsky, we meet Wei Ling Soo, who makes elephants disappear, cuts women in half and transports, much to the amazement of the Berlin crowd. But behind the scenes, we learn that the performer is hiding behind the first of many masks in the film. He is really Stanley (Colin Firth), a master British magician who spends vacations learning card tricks in his room. His best friend Howard (Simon McBurney) approaches him about a group of his friends in the south of France who have been duped by a beautiful mystic named Sophie (Emma Stone). Believing that he can quickly prove Sophie to be a fraud – and also hoping to see his wonderful Aunt Vanessa (Eileen Atkins), Stanley takes up the challenge.
However, as with most Allen pictures, the once-easy plot gets muddled when romance gets in the way. Stanley starts falling for Sophie and even begins to believe her powers. But who's tricking who?
Magic is one of those breezy Allen movies, something like Scoop (although much better, obviously), where you can just feel a master at work enjoying himself. Allen makes a movie every single year, so perhaps making movies that take him to the French Rivera are his ways of taking a vacation from serious material like Blue Jasmine. If that's the case and you realize that Allen's only ambition here is to entertain, then Magic is a success.
And what a lovely looking success. Allen brought back Darisu Khonji, who has lensed his last two European movies, to bring the Mediterranean seaside to life. There is this lovely shot where Emma Stone is just looking straight out into the sea and you want it to last forever. But it doesn't, because Allen has a story to get through, after all.
This really reminded me a lot of Family Plot, Alfred Hitchcock's last film, in which a hilarious mystic is conning everyone. While Hitchcock gets his mystic stuck in a murder plot, Allen gets his involved in a romance. That brings up the film's controversial (for those who care of such things) part. Yes, Emma Stone is 25 and Colin Firth is 53 and the age difference is never addressed in the movie. But you can easily forget about that once you get into the film. The two play off each other wonderfully, with an acute sense of comic timing that belongs in every good Allen movie. After all, if Audrey Hepburn acted alongside men much older than her, shouldn't Stone be able to? She just belongs in a Woody Allen movie and is wonderful here.
One noticeable part of the Allen style that's missing in Magic is a strong supporting cast. Granted, the trimmed story doesn't really allow for anyone other than Firth and Stone to shine, but it was disappointing that Marcia Gay Harden's part as Sophie's mom was nothing more than a walk-on. Jacki Weaver also has a nice bit part as the rich widow Sophie is duping and Hamish Linklater is hilarious as the (more age-appropriate) man after Sophie's heart. One strong suit in the film is the scene-stealing performance by Eileen Atkins as Aunt Vanessa. Keep a close eye on her during the last act.
Even when Woody Allen is off, he knows how to make a delightful, hilarious romantic comedy that actually has some surprising twists along the way. Magic even has a nice lesson weaved in, reminding us that we need to embrace illusions sometimes. We all need something inexplicable to believe in and life might be more enjoyable if we do. The film itself requires the same suspension of disbelief Stanley needs to fall in love. After all, if you think you're the only sane one by believing only in the scientific, then you are the one that's insane.
image courtesy of Roger Wong/INFphoto.com