Actors Save a Stumble

Magic in the Moonlight

An Illusion Review by Joan Ellis

            Magic in the Moonlight is one of Woody Allenís one joke movies. Typically, he presents a premise and then explores it in exhaustive detail Ė a process that with any other practitioner might doom a film. But because actors love to work with him, Allen is able to cast his movies with a rich blend of talent and eccentricity that makes even a pale joke dance.
            The joke: In an enticing opening, Stanley (Colin Firth) stands before a large audience disguised as the magician Wei Ling-Soo. After thrilling the audience with his tricks, he returns to his dressing room to strip off both his wig and his Asian personality. Old friend Howard (Simon McBurney) arrives with an invitation: Come with me to France and help me expose a fraudulent psychic who is making idiots of my rich friends from Pittsburgh. Howard has tried, but the psychic, he reports, is so good that he canít expose her. Only an artist like Stanley is up to this job.
            What follows is a house party of sorts set against a landscape and soundtrack that is classic Woody Allen wonderful. Mrs. Baker (Marcia Gay Harden) is there with her psychic daughter Sophie (Emma Stone), about to receive the gift of financing for their new institute from Pittsburgh matron Grace (Jacki Weaver) and her son Bryce (Hamish Linklater). Grace believes in Sophie completely, while her son Bryce loves her on first sight. 
            To get negative for a moment, it is also typical of Allen to mount a wonderful scene of the sappy, dull witted Bryce serenading Sophie with a badly played ukulele only to undercut himself by repeating the same good setup several times.
            The movie belongs to Colin Firth and Emma Stone with a marvelous assist from Eileen Atkins as Stanleyís aunt. Atkins can say more with an intentional silence than anyone else with a paragraph of lines. Colin Firth is completely charming as the magician who knows a fraud when he sees one except for the lovely young question mark he falls for. His earnest tirades on reality vs illusion are delicious.
            Emma Stone is funny and winning as she plays Sophieís duplicity for the benefit of the weekend gathering. Itís hard to believe, as Stanley does with all his rational analysis, that Sophie is a fraud. With resolution at hand, we are treated to Eileen Atkinsí crucial input. With these three actors, reality be damned.
            On the downside, the Stone/Firth chemistry dims in the face of a nearly thirty year age difference. Itís perfectly reasonable to think 23 year old Emma Stone might be just a little overwhelmed by playing the romantic interest of Englandís grand leading man. And sadly, the one joke storyline wears thin. Is this enough to keep you away? Of course not. Who wants to miss Woody Allenís annual offering? The remarkable truth is that even when he trips, his movies are magnets for anyone who loves wit and originality.

 


Film Critic : JOAN ELLIS
Film Title : Magic in the Moonlight
Distributor : Sony Pictures Classics
Running Time : 1:37
Word Count : 498
Rating : PG-13

 


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