Saturday, July 26, 2014

Review: Magic in the Moonlight

Image courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.
It's hard to argue with those who contend that Woody Allen goes back and forth these days between very good pieces of work and more lightweight pictures. His latest, "Magic in the Moonlight," certainly falls into the latter category, although it has its charms. Look at the track record: the brilliant "Match Point" was followed by "Scoop" and "Cassandra's Dream," "Vicky Cristina Barcelona" was followed by "Whatever Works" and "You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger," "Midnight in Paris" was tailed by "From Rome with Love" and, now, "Blue Jasmine" has been followed by this latest one.

"Magic" tells the tale of a grumpy Englishman named Stanley (Colin Firth), who poses as a Chinese magician named Wei Ling Soo in Berlin circa 1928, enlisted to debunk an American mystic, Sophie (Emma Stone), who claims to be able to speak with the dead and read minds.

Stanley believes in that which he can see and prove, not magic or religion, and is known as a bit of a curmudgeon among his friends. Upon meeting Sophie and her mother (Marcia Gay Harden), whom he believes is in on a scam with her daughter, he is immediately impressed by the supposed mystic's capacity for trickery and also becomes a bit smitten by her.

There are some interesting ideas at play in "Magic in the Moonlight," especially as Stanley and Sophie discuss science vs. magic and religion and the concept that people are happier when they allow themselves to believe simple lies that make life easier to endure. And the eventual - and somewhat obvious - courtship that develops between the two has its charms.

But this is undoubtedly a minor Woody Allen movie. It's cute and funny when it needs to be, but unlike other more recently successful comedies by the filmmaker - "Midnight in Paris," for example - this one mostly remains content with being skin deep.

You can't really fault Allen for not knocking out a great movie every time he goes to bat. The director is now 79 years old and still releases a film each year. Many of them are very good, some are just pretty good and a few are just OK. "Magic in the Moonlight" falls somewhere between the second and third category. Of the 46 films he has directed, 23 of them are very good to great and another dozen or so are solidly in the "good" category. In other words, this year's Woody Allen movie might be a little more lightweight, but there's a decent chance that next year's selection could be a whole lot better.

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