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Woody Allen’s ‘Magic in the Moonlight’ elixir mixes science and sorcery

Magic in the Moonlight

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The assertion that Woody Allen’s lesser films are better than most of what’s out there in the theaters has been repeated often enough to have attained cliché status – but like much of the director’s work over the last two decades, that is in fact the case with “Magic in the Moonlight,” a romantic comedy fueled by the conflict between science and the mystery of the unknowable.

Emma Stone as Sophie.
Emma Stone as Sophie.Jack English © 2014 Gravier Productions/courtesy Sony Pictures Classics
Emma Stone as Sophie and Colin Firth as Stanley.
Emma Stone as Sophie and Colin Firth as Stanley.Jack English © 2014 Gravier Productions/Courtesy Sony Pictures Classics

“Magic in the Moonlight” has a lot going it, more or less: the French Riviera backdrop, framed by DP Darius Khondji (“Midnight in Paris” and “To Rome with Love”); Alisa Lepselter’s restrained editing; often bright but occasionally clunky dialogue; strong acting all around marred by a couple of less than perfectly crafted characterizations.

Co-star Colin Firth brings his great acting chops to the role of Stanley, sort of a 1920s British upper-crust version of the grand American illusionist and prestidigitator, David Copperfield. Like Copperfield, Stanley performs tricks that the best magicians of his generation can’t figure out. Although he is world famous, no one outside of his closed circle of associates knows his real identity because on stage he is known as Wei Ling Soo, the Chinese conjuror.

Firth gets to deliver some of the best lines in the film. His character is brilliant, cantankerous, and too cynical for his own good. He over-invests in science such that his faith is essentially identical to the suckers he derides for believing in fairy tales.

Stanley poses as a businessman named Stanley Taplinger, intent on unmasking Sophie (Emma Stone) as a fraud – a task that soon becomes far more complicated than he ever could have anticipated. Falling into sudden clairvoyant trances, she recounts visions and images about everybody around her that no one else could possibly know. Everyone is impressed except Stanley.

Enter Grace (Jacki Weaver) and her well-heeled, very British family, including handsome son Brice (Hamish Linklater) and daughter Caroline (Erica Leerhsen). Grace wants Sophie to help her connect with her late husband.

The first time we see Sophie, something happens between the camera and the light of the French Riviera – she seems to exude an irresistible charisma as effortlessly as water issuing from a pristine spring. From her modest American roots, she has achieved a reputation in certain circles as a spiritualist with uncanny insight and the ability to connect with the deceased.

Brice immediately falls for Sophie despite her inferior social standing. He aggressively courts her like a cloying, ukulele-playing Cocker Spaniel promising jewels and “exotic” trips all over the world. But how long can she endure Brice’s endless crooning, like a perpetually leaking sulfuric gas tank, of his self-composed bubblegum ditties?

In the end, reality trumps appearance only to uncover inexplicable mystery.

Woody Allen has made some of the most entertaining and insightful American movies of the last half century; films that will speak to the descendents of future audiences long after most of us have dematerialized from the planet – magically or not – when the roar and bluster of most of today’s special-effects driven movies have been forgotten.

In spite of his near- octogenarian status, he continues to make feature-length films at a bewilderingly prodigious, if sometimes ill-advised pace. His many successes – films like “Annie Hall” (1977), “Hannah and her Sisters” (1986), “Crimes and Misdemeanors” (1989) or “Bullets Over Broadway” (1994) – hover in the background over every movie he makes. When something like “Magic in the Moonlight” comes along, it seems to wither in the glare of his most brilliant work – and make one wonder how it would’ve turned given a little more production time.

Like most great artists, Allen works without a net, relying more on artistic impulse than focus groups for inspiration, but unlike some other great American filmmakers of his generation – Terrence Malick, who has made six feature-length films since 1969, or Stanley Kubrick (12 films between 1955 and his death 44 years later) come to mind – Allen has made something like 45 movies over a roughly comparable span of time.

Think of it this way: would you prefer Kubrick and Malick had made more films, or even fewer to avoid tarnishing their brand?

P.S. Don't miss the the Ute Lemper cameo. If you're a fan, you'll know. If not, it's the scene with the cabaret singer in the background. And for fans and the curious, check out "Punishing Kiss." It's a little different from most of her decadent Germany in the '30s stuff, in the most underrated CD of the early 2000s.

Emma Stone staring in Woody’s next film, too

Not surprising that Mr. Allen has cast Emma Stone to co-star with Joaquin Phoenix and Parker Posey in his next unnamed project currently filming in Newport, Rhode Island, the closest he’s gotten to New York in five years. (The Boston Globe’s Mark Shanahan and Meredith Goldstein cited a local casting call issued in early June that stated the new film would take place in a contemporary setting among “academics, graduate students, and middle- and working-class folks.”)

See playdates and locations for “Magic in the Moonlight” HERE.

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