Thursday, August 14, 2014

Review: "Magic in the Moonlight"

One of Woody Allen’s most briskly entertaining movies in years, “Magic in the Moonlight” is about love, mysticism and con jobs.

Set in 1928, it boasts gorgeous locations in the south of France, incredible vintage cars and costumes, and lots of beautiful rich people to stare it. In many ways, this looks and feels like Woody’s riff on the Jay Gatsby era (and the movies made about it).

Colin Firth supplies a delicious performance as Stanley, a famous magician and man of science. The marriage of those vocations may sound like a contradiction, but the erudite and very snobby Stanley would correct you -- and probably quote Nietzsche while doing it.

Because he approaches the craft of illusion with methodical precision, Stanley fashions himself a genius in ferreting out the difference between truth and charlatanism. Indeed, he has a healthy side venture debunking purported mystics and seers. A professional faker who has made his fortune at it, he looks down his nose at others for using similar talents to fool the gullible rich.

Alas, Stanley’s cold rationality has translated into a bleak pessimism about all forms of spirituality, and indeed most human endeavor: “It’s all phony, from the sales counter to the Vatican and beyond,” he sniffs.

Peevish, arrogant and yet slyly magnetic, Firth gives Stanley a sort of petulant charm.

But then he’s recruited by a fellow magician pal, Howard (Simon McBurney), to debunk a young American woman who has ensorcelled a fabulously wealthy family.

The matriarch (Jackie Weaver) has agreed to fund a foundation for her and even dangled a marriage with Brice (Hamish Linklater), the handsome, amiable but dim eldest son. Howard himself was brought in to disprove her, and ended up stumped. Stanley is quite sure he’ll have no problem ferreting out her tricks.

Their meeting, however, serves to lend credence to her psychic abilities. Despite the fact that Stanley is known only by his stage personality, a Chinese wizard by the name of Wei Ling Soo, and he adopts a fake name, career and backstory, the woman soon figures out who he is.

The fact that Sophie (a beguiling Emma Stone) is young, ravishing and full of vim catches the crusty, older Stanley off guard.

Sophie represents a beguiling puzzle to him: her occult act and amateurish demeanor would seem straight out of a carny sideshow, complete with a controlling mother (Marcia Gay Harden) who accompanies her and handles the pressing of flesh and conveying of funds. Yet Stanley can’t pierce the veil of her performance, and even begins to wonder if her gifts are authentic.

He’s finally convinced when he takes her to visit his beloved Aunt Vanessa (a spot-on Eileen Atkins), and Sophie is able to summon intimate details about the older woman’s life by clutching her favorite set of pearls. This revelation throws Stanley’s entire life of rationality and divine asceticism into peril.

If there is a great beyond, then why not a God, and love at first sight, and if there is such love, could it be shared between Sophie and Stanley?

Allen seems to be having a great deal of fun here, playing with his characters’ and the audience’s expectations. One soon senses that it’s not just Sophie and Stanley, but the venerable filmmaker himself, who enjoys wielding the tradecraft of deception.

Funny, smart and wry, “Magic in the Moonlight” conjures up a delightful impression.

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