What a period of refinement this is for Woody Allen. With last year’s Blue Jasmine, 2011’s Midnight in Paris, and now Magic in the Moonlight, the storied writer-director has ushered in his most confident work in years, maybe decades, as he maintains his one-film-a-year output. His notorious reclusiveness means that any shared touchstone with the outside world is likely coincidental, which only makes it all the more impressive when it does sync up. His 2012 entry, the bizarre and embarrassing To Rome With Love, was evidence that he’s not immune to the failure to connect, (some comfort is to be taken in looking at that hodgepodge of interconnecting stories as a dumping ground of afterthoughts and an opportunity to sojourn in The Eternal City) but otherwise, Woody Allen’s title card is currently synonymous with timely event viewing.
This is strange to consider since he’s mostly telling stories from the past. His heartfelt fascination with The Jazz Age continues to palpitate in Magic in the Moonlight, a deceptively trivial time-passer with a whole lot more meat on its bones than at first sight. Like Midnight in Paris, for which Allen won the Best Original Screenplay Oscar, the simple joys derived from the inherent whimsy of its premise are accentuated by grander themes, which take an indescribable human experience and whittle it down to plainest terms. In Midnight in Paris, it was the devastating realization that nostalgia is a sham; in Magic in the Moonlight, it’s something different, something more hopeful, but a message that fosters no less of a reeling impact.
Colin Firth is world-celebrated magician Stanley Crawford, who ignites the stage as Wei Ling Soo, a Chinese wizard of sorts, unrecognizable in a bald cap and politically incorrect moustache. Stanley’s outspoken vehemence against psychic mediums summons his lifelong friend and fellow illusionist Howard Burkan (Simon McBurney, delightfully shifty) to recruit Stanley on a mission to the South of France to debunk yet another swindler, the American clairvoyant Sophie Baker (Emma Stone). Assuming an alias, Stanley slithers into the extravagant household of a grieving family who’s invited Sophie and her mother (Marcia Gay Harden) to connect the widow Grace (Jacki Weaver) with the spirit of her dead husband.
To say the arrogant and irascible Stanley spends much of his time monitoring Sophie’s supernatural exploits – demonstrated by Stone with exaggerated hand movements and doe-eyed stares into the ether as she dispenses her psychic visions, or as she comically calls them, “mental impressions” – with a closed mind would be wrong. Stanley wants to believe there is more to life than what we can see, which is from where his crusade against the type of con people he at first believes Sophie to be stems. He’s not out to set fire to the possibility that she or anyone else could be the real thing; rather, he’s determined to make sure beyond a shadow of a doubt that she is before he can surrender to the belief. And of course, eventually, after a series of stumpers, he does so with abandon.
Stanley’s swift regression from stiff cynic to bundle of childlike wonderment is a high point for Firth. The actor amusingly walks a tightrope of likability throughout, risking audience alienation by daring to be too unlikable at first, and then later flirting with utter idiocy in the film’s funniest and simultaneously most heartbreaking scene in which Sophie, on the verge of accepting a marriage offer from a wealthy, ukulele-strumming nimrod (Hamish Linklater), professes her romantic feelings for Stanley, who responds not with the warm reciprocation she anticipates, but in the most relentlessly aloof way imaginable. It’s up there with Woody Allen’s most memorable breakup-tinged scenes, of which there are countless, and refreshingly liberates this one – temporarily, at least – from the formula comedic romances so willfully embrace.
Emma Stone has been etching her charm and acute wit into the walls of the world’s living room for years now, but her work here cements it. She is glowing and unpredictable, and jibes effortlessly with Allen’s peerless comedic and romantic sensibilities. Magic in the Moonlight also marks Allen and cinematographer Darius Khondji’s most exquisite collaboration yet. The meticulous director of photography casts Stone and the idyllic scenery in a staggering incandescent glow that could easily be considered the sunny A-side to his similarly stunning but infinitely gloomier work on James Gray’s The Immigrant’s flipside.
For decades, Woody Allen, like Firth’s character, has declared his a voice of doubt and suspicion of spirituality and higher powers and those who swear by such beliefs. He’s not overtly cynical; in fact, many of his films openly incorporate supernatural elements and lean on them to entertain. For a while, Magic in the Moonlight appears to be handed to us by a more open-minded Woody Allen; one dancing with the idea that more does, in fact, exist. Its many dense scenes of dialogue are about this, and you can sense the writer exploring and grappling with this change in perspective through Stanley. It makes for a more enlightening experience, one that plumbs unexpected depths for a filmmaker who’s been accused, perhaps unfairly at times, of recycling his own tropes to excess. Even when openly pondering the many meanings of life and the universe, he’s in control as ever, guiding a whirlwind romance that does what it can to make an irrefutable case for the genuine magic within it. It can be unabashedly romantic and optimistic, and by that definition, Magic in the Moonlight is one of Woody Allen’s boldest and best films.