When a Woody Allen film gets less than a stellar response, everyone always talks about how Allen cranks out a movie every year. "Some are going to be duds" is a common line used in reviews when it's "Woody-light." I'm a fan of Allen, and I look forward to his yearly film. Magic in the Moonlight, however, might be the first time that I really didn't like one of his efforts. I haven't seen all of his work, but this one really irritated me.
Set in 1928, Colin Firth plays an illusionist under the disguise of a Chinese man named Wei Ling Soo. His signature trick is making a live elephant disappear on stage (Just as a side note: if he would have performed this trick on America's Got Talent, the audience would go NUTS, but his reception is a somewhat loud series of golf claps. I would have been that obnoxious person in the audience screaming "WHAT?!" in a sea of polite applause). Wei Ling's real name is Stanley, and he's one of the most arrogant men you will ever meet. Are all magicians this obnoxious?
Stanley is asked by his childhood friend, Howard (Simon McBurney), to unmask a young, attractive girl who has convinced an older woman that she's a spirit medium. Howard is convinced that Sophie Baker (Emma Stone) is a fraud, but he can't debunk her himself. He asks Stanley to come in and confirm his suspicions since he has experience exposing these kinds of characters. Stanley is the kind of man who believes in science and logic, and he couldn't possibly believe that there is another realm or any sort of magic that we can't see.
Sophie has charmed everyone in the Catledge family. Jacki Weaver plays Grace, the matriarch who she genuinely thinks Sophie can contact her late husband, and Hamish Linklater plays Brice, Grace's smitten, ukulele-strumming son. Sophie travels with her bookkeeping mother (Marcia Gay Harden), a woman who swears up and down that her daughter's gift is legitimate. Sophie can spout off truths about anyone's past. Stone goes into a dreamlike state, her eyes wide and her hands at rigid at the side of her face. These details are things that no one would be able to guess, and most of the characters are stunned by Sophie's gift. Stanley stands firm that she is a fake, and that part kind of bugged the crap out of me.
I'm not saying that he should surrender everything he ideals about truth and logic, but he's so loudly pessimistic. It's grating, really. His chemistry with Stone is almost nonexistent, and the fact that he's so much her senior undoubtedly raises eyebrows. I am a huge fan of Stone, but I am not sure this is the right fit for her. She's beer and pretzels charming--I don't mean that as an insult, but maybe she lacks the poise for a character like Sophie. Then again, it could be Allen's doesn't serve her well. Allen isn't a hands on with his actors, and Stone feels lost among her co-stars. All the characters constantly mention how pretty Sophie is (and she is), but it might have been more effective if they constantly commented on her charm. Stone sticks out like a sore thumb in Magic in the Moonlight.
Surely, there is a move in Magic in the Moonlight that deals with the conflict between logic and believing in the realms we can't see. When Stanley finally gives in to Sophie's predictions, I didn't buy it. The whole love affair is completely unbelievable, and there is one scene near the end (where Stanley considers his feelings for Sophie with his aunt, played by Eileen Atkins) that is painfully unfunny. It drags and drags and drags. Magic might want to be a Gatsby-era comedy about believing your heart before your brain, but it fails to make either of those organs remotely engaging.