We need our illusions to live, or so says the main character in Magic in the Moonlight, Woody Allen’s clever new release.
The romantic comedy is set in the south of France in 1928, and, although it is beguiling, charming, thoughtful and even challenging, it is neither overtly romantic nor terribly funny.
Magic works on several levels, and it is obvious Allen wants it that way. On its surface, it may be the story of magician Stanley (Colin Firth) setting out to debunk the claims of a young psychic, Sophie (Emma Stone). Underneath, Allen examines many of the themes that have forever perplexed him.
Stanley is the ultimate skeptic. He has been fooling his audiences long enough to know it’s all gimmickry, easily performed because audiences want to be fooled. He reads Nietzsche and believes in science but does not believe in a higher power, an afterlife, souls or spirits, and likes to ridicule anyone who does.
He answers the call of a friend, Howard (Simon McBurney), who has encountered the allegedly clairvoyant Sophie. Howard believes her powers may be genuine. When the caustic Stanley meets Sophie, the source of the film’s eventual small amount of romance quickly becomes apparent despite the 28-year age difference between Firth and Stone.
Before reaching that anticlimax, however, Allen traffics in his own misdirection, encouraging his audience to believe in Sophie’s powers while Stanley becomes so enchanted with her that he admits he hopes her powers prove genuine because he has never been so happy. Contentment can only be found when deluded, however that form may come.
If true, both for Stanley and for Woody Allen, the world becomes a different, maybe even better place. Or, as one character puts it, “The world may be without purpose, but it is not without magic.”
Through Stanley, Allen acknowledges his well-known skepticism, but he might also be saying that those with stronger beliefs and a security in those beliefs might be better off.
Ace cinematographer Darius Khondji supplies the film’s soft palette, which takes advantage of the Riviera’s lush landscapes. For his background scores, Allen supplements his usual menu of vintage jazz with a smattering of classical numbers. And as usual, he has assembled a strong supporting cast with competent performances from Eileen Atkins as Stanley’s aunt, Hamish Linklater as Sophie’s amorous conquest, and Marcia Gay Harden as Sophie’s mom.
BOO ALLEN is an award-winning film critic who has worked for the Denton Record-Chronicle for more than 20 years. He lives in Dallas.
Magic in the Moonlight
Rated PG-13, 97 minutes.
Opens Friday at the Angelika Film Center in Plano.