'Moonlight' is Fun in the Sun

Magic in the Moonlight
(USA, 98 min.)
Written and directed by Woody Allen
Starring: Eileen Atkins, Colin Firth, Marcia Gay Harden, Hamish Linklater, Simon McBurney, Emma Stone, Jacki Weaver.
Colin Firth as Stanley and Emma Stone as Sophie. 
Photo by Jack English © 2014 Gravier Productions, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Woody’s parabolic filmography continues with the enjoyable, if slight, Magic in the Moonlight. Magic in the Moonlight, Woody Allen’s 44th film as a director, is a fun bit of summer escapism and has all the magic for which one comes to love Allen’s films, but even a die-hard Allen fan must realize this film as an admittedly lesser entry in a very strong career. Second-rate Allen is still better than most, though, and Magic in the Moonlight mostly suffers only because it comes out in the midst of one of Allen’s hottest comebacks following the one-two punch of five-star gems like 2011’s Midnight in Paris and 2013’s Blue Jasmine, which rank among the best films he’s ever made. Magic in the Moonlight is a step above 2012’s pleasant summer diversion To Rome with Love, though, which came sandwiched between the aforementioned pair of Oscar winners, so this dip down in Allen’s oeuvre leaves one anticipating the winner he’ll crank out next year.

Magic in the Moonlight offers more of Allen’s trademark reflections on love and death mixed with the healthy dose of magical realism that frequently makes his films so enchanting. Colin Firth stars as Stanley, a conjurer who performs under the alias of The Great Wei Ling Soo, who accepts an offer to investigate a mystic named Sophie (Emma Stone) whose powers stump even the greatest of skeptics. Stanley sets off from Berlin to the sunny Côte d’Azur where Sophie allegedly works her magic on a wealthy widow (Jacki Weaver) and her love struck son (Hamish Linklater).  

Sophie sees into Stanley’s life with her “vibrations,” which are magical rumblings that put her in a fugue state and permit her to see all. Sophie’s good vibrations also give Magic in the Moonlight a decent dose of humour, for Stone seems to have a lot of fun playing up Sophie’s obvious charlatanry with theatrical flair. Firth is a good foil for Stone, since Stanley is a stuffy and sarcastic non-believer. They’re a charming couple even if their twenty-eight-year age difference is a little farfetched. (It’s an Allen film—the magic of love knows no expiry date!)

The film is pleasant fun in the sun and refreshing summer escapism as Allen conjures a comedy of manners with a great ensemble cast. Firth and Stone are fetching leads while Weaver, Harden, and especially Eileen Atkins add some fun to the cast. The real magic of Moonlight, however, is the eye-catching use of sunlight by cinematographer Darius Khondji, who offers some postcard perfect compositions of the French seaside amidst warm summer twilight. Magic in the Moonlight is one of Allen’s most aesthetically appealing films and the compositions, and the use of long takes that follow the houseguests as they roam its stately grounds, offers some of the most stimulating visual work since Allen’s collaborations with Gordon Willis. The period costumes by Sonia Grande (who also dressed Paris) are equally exquisite.

Magic in the Moonlight delights by offering one of Allen’s most optimistic magic acts. The usually cynical worldview of his films prevails in Stanley’s approach to Sophie and her cash-grubbing mum (Marcia Gay Harden), but Stanley eventually opens up to the possibility that magic exists and that unverifiable sparkles might actually offer something in which to believe. It’s a premise and fable akin to Midnight in Paris, the comparison to which is almost impossible to shake given the 1920s setting and the appeal of magic in the moonlight (which could have easily been an alternate title for Paris). While Magic in the Moonlight never exceeds the comic or philosophical potential of Paris, it’s nevertheless a consistently funny and charming musing on life’s unanswerable questions. The magic of Moonlight enchants even if it’s an act audiences have seen before.

Rating: ★★★½ (out of ★★★★★)

Magic in the Moonlight is now in theatres from Mongrel Media.
It screens in Ottawa at The ByTowne until August 21.

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