REVIEW: Magic in the Moonlight

23 07 2014

Magic in the MoonlightAt a Cannes Film Festival press conference back in 2010, writer/director Woody Allen opined rather extensively about his views on life.  Among the misanthropic murmurs, he remarked, “I do feel that it [life] is a grim, painful, nightmarish, meaningless experience, and that the only way that you can be happy is if you tell yourself some lies and deceive yourself.”

Four years later, “Magic in the Moonlight” arrives in theaters to once again hammer home Allen’s personal philosophy as expressed in the quote above.  You know, just in case we happened to miss it in any of his other four dozen or so films.

This pessimistic fatalism goes down, however, quite palatably here because Allen casts two leads far more charming than himself: Colin Firth and Emma Stone.  Though they’re spouting lines that could make Nietzsche chuckle, the film never loses its mirthful mood thanks to the effervescence that the duo radiates.

“Magic in the Moonlight,” similar to 2009’s “Whatever Works,” has the feel of an undeveloped comedy from Allen in the ’70s.  That tenor is achieved by the nature of the concept, yet it’s also due in large part to the spell that Stone casts over it.  Allen clearly sees in her the same kind of alluring wit and personality that Diane Keaton immortalized in his films; it’s simply delightful to watch a wide-eyed Stone revel in one of his creations.

Magic

That’s not meant as any slight to Colin Firth, who does a nice job playing the spout for Allen’s mantras.  Such grim remarks as “the only superpower sure to show up [in life] wears a black robe” or “life is nasty, brutish, and short” sound quite natural in a British accent, like something I might have overheard on the Tube.  Firth’s natural knack for the mood begs the question of why more of Allen hasn’t looked to our friends across the pond for more collaborations.

Simply because Firth and Stone cast a spell over the screen, however, does not make “Magic in the Moonlight” a joyous ode to life.  Allen retains a deep skepticism of all things that are not governed by the laws of logic and reason – even love.  At times, this ad nauseam insistence on a nihilistic attitude can sap away the enjoyment being ginned up by the stars on screen.

The hocus pocus of Stone’s Sophie, a supposed spiritual medium, and anyone willing to be swayed by it are always approached with ruthless ridicule.  Happy as they maybe, Allen blasts them as ignorant fools.  In his mind, magic belongs in the realm of the spiritual and the religious.  These are delusions and distractions for those unable to grapple with the big issues in life.

So it makes sense that Firth’s Stanley, an English illusionist, should be so fervently committed to disproving Sophie’s mystique.  In a way, it represents Allen’s vicarious quest to disprove God.  As he once wrote, “If God exists, I hope he has a good excuse.”

But Stanley, like Allen himself, has a blind spot where a certain kind of magic trick can fool him: love.  The strange sensation of affection is irrational, illogical, and yet totally necessary to survive.  Love, in “Magic in the Moonlight,” is more a pleasant diversion than anything else, a shield to dull the blunt of facing your demise.  It’s certainly not the most romantic notion, to be clear, but it’s a valid worldview, whether you agree with it or not.

The film isn’t an all-out bombardment of Allen’s philosophy, despite what my remarks might have you believe.  It’s more like a steady undercurrent, a modus operandi for the film’s very being.  And Allen will never have you forget it’s there, even while you luxuriate in the lush tones of the Cote d’Azur as captured by DP Darius Khondji or the beautiful period costumes and sets.  But no one else but Woody Allen could make a film like “Magic in the Moonlight,” conveying such a grim outlook through such exuberantly grinning characters.  B2halfstars


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2 responses

23 07 2014
thycriticman

Not very interested in this one after seeing a trailer before Boyhood last night…but glad that you had some fun with it! It is cool that the characters are not grim and manage to entertain!

24 07 2014
Marshall

I feel like the trailers for Woody Allen rarely do a good job of selling the movie, no matter what quality the film itself is!

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