Oh Woody Allen what has happened to your work? The most recent films have become so light-weight that they float lazily into oblivion. MAGIC IN THE MOONLIGHT turns the spotlight on an abrasive, egocentric magician outfitted in “exotic” Chinese garb performing stereotypical tricks to great acclaim by appreciative audiences in 1928 - a time between the two World Wars - a period of wild release and emancipation. Though this epoch is not integral to the story, it gives Woody Allen an opportunity to clothe the actors in roaring twenties attire, showcasing upper class elegance in the milieu of the wealthy - their grand homes, furnishings, decor and cars. The best part of the movie is the use of a soundtrack with some wonderful Bix Beiderbecker, Cole Porter, Beethoven, etc. scores. Colin Firth - who literally appears anguished at having been cast in the role of Wei Ling Soo aka Stanley Crawford - a British “rationalist” snob, who is an unlikeable bore, both whiny and pretentious, ironically disdainful of the “sucker” patrons who applaud his “genius” at deception and chimera.
The gist of this tale is the attempt by Stanley Crawford - our “brilliant” illusionist who literally knows all the tricks in the book - to debunk a young beautiful “spiritualist”, Sophie Baker (a vapid performance by Emma Stone,) who is creating a sensation in the Cote d’Azur for her clairvoyant skills. He is called to this task by a fellow magician and childhood friend, Howard (Simon McBurney - a Roman Polanski look alike) to expose Sophie as a fraud, having seduced a wealthy family and particularly the shallow, banjo crooning scion into her world of seances, contacting the spectral inhabitants of the invisible “world beyond.”
Romance blooms - Pygmalion style - as love is the ultimate head-spinning aphrodisiac. The power of attraction transforms the world from the mundane to the exciting - this is where true alchemy resides. Since this is a Woody Allen movie, we have come to anticipate his fascination with the mysteries of amore, his fixation on chemistry and magnetism; MAGIC IN THE MOONLIGHT continues that predilection with enchantment.
Allen is also attempting to deal with the consequences of surrendering oneself to a belief in magical thinking, and the lengths to which faith can be a necessary corollary to existence in a world fraught with uncertainty and eventual death, dealing with the big existential questions - tossing in heavy-duty names such as Nietzsche and Hobbes. Lots of potential here but alas MAGIC IN THE MOONLIGHT is neither a side-splitting parody nor a serious exploration of the mysteries of existence. Instead it relies on a veneer of “style”, jaunty music, quick cuts, and predictable blathering in an endeavor to captivate and beguile audiences, who will not be fooled by the film’s superficial chicanery.