TMN Movie Review: "Magic in the Moonlight"

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A romantic comedy about an Englishman brought in to help unmask a possible swindle. Personal and professional complications ensue.
3.5

Rating: PG-13
Length: 97 minutes
Release Date: July 25, 2014
Directed by: Woody Allen
Genre: Comedy / Drama / Romance

"Magic in the Moonlight" continues both the recent and long-term traditions of Woody Allen's work. The recent traditions include using European locations and the use of a non-Allen stand-in as the male lead. Long-term traditions include early 20th century settings, elements of magic and surrealism, and the overall aesthetic that Allen fans have come to know. With a characteristic ability to choose a perfect cast for the material and decades of experience bringing his visions to the screen, the iconic filmmaker successfully created a piece that is relatively minor but unusually enjoyable.

One of the qualities that has earned Woody Allen a dedicated cult following is the unique contradictions in his work. Most Allen movies, especially his comedies, are seemingly light with easy humor. However, the films also carry weighty psychological and philosophical conundrums just below the surface and often even on the surface. "Magic in the Moonlight" makes use of this contradiction more deftly and subtly than perhaps any other Allen film.

With a hefty output of one film every year, Allen's critical acclaim tends to vary from one work to the next. However, this emblematic romantic comedy sees everything fall into place successfully. The cast is led by Emma Stone and Colin Firth. For this project, it is impossible to think of two modern actors who would be more perfect in their roles.

Firth is, of course, known for his roles in romantic-based films of all stripes. Whether in quirky comedies like "Bridget Jones's Diary" or emotionally intense dramas like "Closer," Firth has a clear gift for inhabiting these roles and bringing exactly what is required. This is apparent with his "Magic in the Moonlight" character Stanley, a talented yet extremely cynical magician in 1920s Germany. Both his wildly offensive on-stage persona and his offstage brusqueness and arrogance are a joy to behold as Firth makes the most of his juicy part. There are some possible parallels between Stanley and the classic Allen persona, but Firth makes the role very much his own.

While traveling in France, Stanley meets the seeming con artist and self-styled clairvoyant Sophie. Played with blazing confidence by Emma Stone, the American Sophie has the charisma and magician skills to impress just about anybody. Brice, played by Hamish Linklater, charges Stanley with trying to uncover the tricks behind Sophie's apparent magic. Her trickery eludes even the highly experienced Stanley, who is both beguiled and confounded.

Even though Stanley is a magician, he does not believe in anything resembling magic at the start of the film. Firth convincingly plays Stanley's rationality to the point of cynicism, but Stone also convincingly plays Sophie as an extraordinary presence. Both Sophie's magnetism and her supremely convincing tricks – one involving floating candles and another displaying her uncanny knowledge about Stanley and his family – baffle the magician. This throws Stanley's entire worldview into doubt, and his questioning of his own beliefs coincides with a romantic element as he and Sophie grow closer.

Although there are not many huge surprises in the plot of "Magic in the Moonlight," the way everything plays out is still very enjoyable and satisfying to watch. There is little that is modern about this film, apart from its cast. There are no winking references to modern events or slang. Where Allen's previous film "Midnight in Paris" played with the idea of being transported back to a seemingly more innocent time, this film transports the audience entirely.

There is an apparent parallel between a period piece that takes its viewers back to a less-cynical age and the protagonist who has his well-ingrained cynicism thrown into doubt. Of course, things always turn out to be a bit more complicated than they seem. However, this film only grazes the edges of more serious questions, mostly in effort to bolster the emotions of its simple romantic story.

With some philosophy just below the surface, great humor and amusing characters, "Magic in the Moonlight" offers most of what Woody Allen fans can hope for in a new release. While this effort does not attempt to break any new ground in the filmmaker's oeuvre or deliver the type of dramatic intensity Allen sometimes presents, it is a pleasant comedy that works well. For fans of the director or the cast, or even moviegoers interested in a diverting romantic comedy, "Magic in the Moonlight" is absolutely worthwhile.

With "Magic in the Moonlight," Woody Allen does return to many familiar themes and much of the same style that he has utilized effectively in the past. However, with this romantic comedy, everything comes together, including a perfect cast and a charming story, to produce a suitably entertaining film.