Allen's Moonlight a frothy, emotionally obvious trifle
 

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posted Friday, August 8 2014 - Volume 42 Issue 32

Allen's Moonlight a frothy, emotionally obvious trifle
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

MAGIC IN THE MOONLIGHT
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Stanley Crawford (Colin Firth), performing in the guise of an elderly Chinese wiseman with the nom de plume Wei Ling Soo, is the most celebrated magician of his time. One night after a show, his best friend, fellow stage magician Howard Burkan (Simon McBurney), comes to him with a challenge. Seems a clairvoyant named Sophie Baker (Emma Stone) has been using her unproven talents on the wealthy Catledge family, mother Grace (Jacki Weaver) certain she's contacting her dearly departed husband, while supercilious son Brice (Hamish Linklater) claims to be falling in love with the young American.

Never one to back away from a challenge, Stanley eagerly departs for the Catledge's Côte d'Azur estate in order to debunk Sophie's powers and show her to be a money-hungry charlatan. Problem is, the arrogant nonbeliever has trouble doing it. More, he's actually quite smitten with the much younger, exceedingly attractive woman, his feelings starting to cloud his judgment, making him believe her clairvoyant skills might in fact be legitimate.

Woody Allen's latest is a frothy, somewhat acid-laced, yet overall quite harmless, romantic trifle entitled Magic in the Moonlight. As far as the Annie Hall and Manhattan auteur is concerned, the film does not come close to rising to the same heights of any of his classic works, not even the relatively recent sensation Midnight in Paris. It's second tier Allen, yet admittedly in the upper echelons of that group, more Blue Jasmine than To Rome with Love, The Curse of the Jade Scorpion than Scoop.

The frustrating thing is that, for at least the first half, maybe a bit more than that, the movie showcases the potential to be something special, working in many of the same foamy, breathlessly idiosyncratic, yet still remarkably romantic ways as Allen favorites The Purple Rose of Cairo and Alice.

Stanley's an insufferable prig, difficult to warm to and in many ways even harder to like. But watching him melt in Sophie's presence? Seeing his emotional walls crumble as she turns on her seemingly effortless charm? It's humorously divine, all the character's insecurities and long-held beliefs coming into stark contrast with his growing, almost all-consuming infatuation with the very woman he's been tasked with revealing as a fake.

Firth is wonderful. His embodiment of this character is full, utterly immersive, the Oscar-winner disappearing inside of Stanley as he mines every crevice and fiber of his being. More than that, his chemistry with Stone is off the charts, making it easy to believe he could lose his heart (along with a small part of his mind) to Sophie in spite of their obvious age difference just from being in her presence without having to utter a single word. The actor goes from being distinctly unlikeable to unequivocally lovable with exquisite grace, moving from one emotional epiphany to the next with heavenly dexterity.

The problem is, at a certain point the movie runs out of sleeves to hide all its hidden cards. More than that, it almost feels as if Allen himself loses interest in the very story he's concocted. The fun dissipates, if not entirely, then to a point that seeing how things work out isn't nearly as important or as worthwhile as it should be. The mechanics of the central mystery as to whether or not Sophie is all she proclaims to be and whether or not Stanley is going to be okay with the answer, positive or negative, isn't particularly interesting nor is it all that important, lessoning the emotional impact of the climactic events substantially.

Thankfully, the movie has more than enough in the way of positives to make up for most, mind you not all, of its shortcomings. As already stated, Firth is incredible, while Stone has enough spunky angelic energy to make even the more ephemeral and nondescript aspects of her personality come to life in ways they otherwise wouldn't have. Best of all is Eileen Atkins as Stanley's wise, sarcastically blunt Aunt Vanessa, the British legend stealing scenes left and right every time she waltzes into the frame.

If only Magic in the Moonlight knew what to do with itself as it comes to its fully anticipated finale, the climactic dynamics between Stanley, Sophie and all the rest nowhere near as interesting, enlightening or humorous as I hoped they'd be. The film is lesser Allen, but that doesn't make it not without merit - how many of them it has dependent entirely on how much the viewer is willing to forgive the rather shallow emotional dramatics the picture ultimately chooses to revel in.



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Allen's Moonlight a frothy, emotionally obvious trifle
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