My Schemes Are Just Like All My Dreams, by Josh Long
These days, it’s impossible to go into a Woody Allen movie without some kind of preconceptions. Even if you haven’t seen any of his movies (a sort of anti-accomplishment by this point), you’ve probably heard all the hullaballoo kicked up by stepdaughter Dylan Farrow earlier this year, if not the Mia Farrow/Soon Yi controversies that have been dogging him since the 90s. Love him or hate him, he keeps making movies, and it’s hard not to come across them. If, for a brisk 98 minutes, you can put aside any opinions you bring into the theatre, you will find some bright, pleasant comedy in Magic in the Moonlight.
Colin Firth plays Stanley, a magician performing as an “oriental conjurer” under the nom de scéne Wei Ling Soo. When close friend and fellow magician Howard Burkan (Simon McBurney) runs across a woman claiming to be a spiritualist, he asks Stanley to observe and debunk her. Stanley, having exposed many fraudulent spiritualists, accepts the challenge readily. Upon meeting the lovely “medium” Sophie (Emma Stone), he finds himself stumped at her tricks. Could she be the real thing? And if so, will he have to rethink his militant views on the spiritual realm? As Stanley and Sophie spend more and more time together a romance begins to bloom; the question is whether it can be requited, and whether it can withstand the secrets they keep from each other.
Allen’s new film does deal with questions of rationalism versus spiritualism, and even the existence of God. Still, it approaches its subjects with a light and breezy hand. You won’t find the Bergmanesque sturm und drang here; it’s less of a philosophical treatise (despite the multiple Nietzsche references) and more of an easy poem. Perhaps a jazz ditty, if you will. Ultimately, it’s about how even a strict rationalist can find something unexplainable in the magic of romance.
The dialogue is quick and witty, as you’d expect for this type of comedy. Most of the laughs are at Stanley’s expense. As a stick in the mud, sour puss “non-believer,” Stanley has no qualms about proclaiming his opinions about all those duped by spiritualism. His sarcastic quips are some of the better lines in the movie. Befuddled as he is when he finds himself drawn to (and stumped by) Sophie, we can enjoy the forced humility in his comeuppance. It quickly becomes obvious that Stanley is the Allen-surrogate for the film, made (perhaps painfully) obvious by another character’s description of him as “neurotic,” and unable to enjoy life. This doesn’t make him an unlikable character – it’s more like Woody Allen saying “I know he’s [read “I’m”] quite a handful, but at least he’s aware of it, and he can still be loveable.” Indeed, Colin Firth keeps Stanley loveable through all his egoistic demeanor.
While there aren’t any spectacular performances, they’re all good. Emma Stone is lovely as Sophie, it’s simple to imagine falling in love with her. Hamish Linklater plays a comically doe-eyed admirer of hers, promising to marry her and use his family’s fortune to buy her anything she wants. Eileen Atkins serves an enjoyable role as Stanley’s no-nonsense aunt. The cast fits together very nicely, all fitting comfortably into the world of the 1920s French Riviera.
As far as where this fits into Allen’s catalogue, it closest to his 1980s nostalgia a la Radio Days or Purple Rose of Cairo. The pessimism of Blue Jasmine isn’t present here, at least not palpably. Audiences will see similarities to the tone of the period segments of Midnight in Paris (understandably, as cinematographer Darius Khonji worked on both films – you might recognize his work from his frequent collaborations with Jean-Pierre Jeunet). The fish out of water element of Midnight in Paris is gone here, which allows the movie to flow easier; the consistency makes a notable difference. Magic has been a theme in Woody Allen’s work in the past (see Scoop or the award-winning short story “The Kugelmass Episode”). This film’s use of magic as metaphor for romance is an obvious choice, but it feels natural – never forced or over-explained.
As potentially heavy as the subject matter is, Magic in the Moonlight has an airy pleasantness to it that a seasoned comedic filmmaker like Allen can capably accomplish. Buttressed by solid performances, lavish 1920s production design, and a beautiful seaside setting, it’s a light enjoyable romance – perfect summertime viewing.