‘Magic in the Moonlight’ is Precisely That

Casey St. Charnez - August 21, 2014

'A lot of people just refuse to go to any Woody Allen movies any more.'

[As of this posting, “Magic in the Moonlight” is at the Regal DeVargas 6 at 1:30, 4:40, 7:30, and (weekend only) 9:55pm. It is rated PG-13, mostly for copious tobacco consumption.]

Admittedly, I am lately trepidatious about seeing films by Woody Allen. Even if he himself is not physically on screen, the shadow of his exposed secrets can darken the light of the movie.

Lisa, however, always reminds me to see the art, and not the artist. “Pollack was an alcoholic wife abuser, Wagner was reprehensible,” she says, “and Dickens was a dick.”

However, she does say that often what she hears on the counter at The Vid is that “A lot of people just refuse to go to any Woody Allen movies any more.”

Thus, my approach/avoidance to any of his oeuvre, especially post-Soon-yi Previn in the 1990s, and earlier this year, with the Dylan Farrow scandal. Go forth and Google. I’m not going to elaborate here.

Instead, I shall write of the enjoyable and engaging time we had at his 44th movie, Magic in the Moonlight, which, seen on its own without the distraction of external rumination, is a chucklesome comedy about a self-described pessimist, misanthrope, and atheist who is also a world-class stage illusionist, circa 1928. The kind of theatrical professional who makes live elephants disappear, that sort of thing, you know.      

A colleague invites him to come and visit, incognito, a moneyed Pittsburgh family vacationing near Provence, currently in the thrall, perhaps throes, of a charming young medium who is successfully conducting seances contacting the matriarch’s late husband. Our protagonist, whose hobby is the gleeful debunking and public humiliation of psychic frauds, can not resist the thrill of the hunt, and off he goes to the South of France.       

Naturellement, the point is not whether she will turn out to be  a) a miracle, b) a phony, or c) a and b, but that against all better judgment they are falling in love, whether they know it or not, whether they want to or not. This, despite the magician’s pragmatic fiancee back in London who keeps insisting they are a perfect match, and the medium’s eager gotrox beau who keeps serenading her, rather dreadfully, with his ukulele.       

Everybody’s favorite Mr. Darcy, Colin Firth, is the dour and clever fellow, while Emma Stone—who only four years ago played a high-schooler in Easy A—are the lovers.       

And, of course, therein lies the problem with Magic in the Moonlight—indeed, its only problem. Though rife in Wildean epigrammatical conversation, and smartly engaging in its musings on spiritualism and spirituality, nevertheless, at heart this is another of what the movie industry calls a gidget-and-geezer movie--way younger leading lady and way older male lead. In actuality, Stone is 26 and Firth is 54, and even though they’re more or less playing late-20s and late-40s, respectively, the age difference is still visible, palpable, and somewhat troublesome.   

Without doubt, Lolita is the template for this morally dubious rom-com sub-genre, at once both its acme and its nadir. Daddy Long Legs and Love in the Afternoon are other notable examples, as is Woody Allen’s own Manhattan.      

Fortunately, Allen’s trademarked touch, combining laughter with pain, deftly raises the scenario into a rarefied atmospheric level where the unfolding emotions are palatable, even applaudable.      

Granted, it’s far from perfect. Firth’s makeup is too obvious and he does not quite pull off his crucial mid-movie moment of zen. Further, considering this is a comedy, nothing is momentarily side-splitting, and there’s not a single sight gag or in-joke.       

Yet there’s no mistaking it for what it is, what with the Windsor Light Condensed main title font, the oldies soundtrack, the bitter optimism, the neuroses, the one-liners, and the eternal twin torments of life and love. In Allen’s every film, wit and angst prevail, even in his jarring works like last year’s Best Original Screenplay nominee Blue Jasmine…though Magic in the Moonlight, pleasantly, is much closer in tone to Radio Days, Alice, and The Purple Rose in Cairo.     

In the end, with all of the above now said, the bottom line is that if you can watch this accomplished, often profound work phenomenologically, on its own, without tabloid baggage, then you will have seen a perfect summer movie for thinking grown-ups.      

On the other hand, try though I may to adhere to Lisa’s dictate about the art and the artist, still I continue to boycott anything with that violent, misogynistic, racist lunatic Mel Gibson.     

Just saying.

Firth and Stone on working with Woody Allen (ABC News):