Saturday, August 9, 2014

Review: "Magic in the Moonlight" is a Delightfully Familiar Film from Woody Allen

Left to right: Emma Stone and Colin Firth

Over the decades, director Woody Allen has made an impressive career out of mixing philosophy with jazz and bites of small, intellectual humor. His plots may often be pointless or not even thought out, but his consistency in overall quality is something to be amazed about. He is one of the most reliable directors out there, provided that you love what he dishes out. Following last year's phenomenal Blue Jasmine is more of the same in Magic in the Moonlight in which a magician debunking a psychic attempts to become a commentary on religion. The plot isn't all that amazing, but thanks to Allen's penchant gift for screenwriting, it doesn't matter. It is whimsical and funny in all of the predictable ways.

For years, Stanley (Colin Firth) has been a magician of some regards with his assistant Howard (Simon McBurney). His shows are something of renown and his ego causes him to believe that he is always right. Then comes Sophie (Emma Stone), who is a psychic that has an uncanny gift for mental connections. It is silly, but quickly turns into an investigation that turns into love. Beyond that, the film is an ode to 1928 in which people dressed up, dance to hot music, and and drove around on the hillside overlooking the gorgeous ocean. The driving is so gratuitous that at times, it feels like all that the film has. It doesn't matter, because that car ride looks fun.

The film doesn't have much to offer in the first half. Beyond introducing characters and initial concept, the film meanders around in intellectual humor and Firth remaining a charmingly British figure. The themes are blatant and spoken in ways that create a predictive quality. Despite decent chemistry, the romance isn't present nor interesting for most of the film. When it is, Allen's writing dives into familiar territory and over-analyzes details in ways that bog down the fun nature with something more familiar and lofty. In fact, it feels like the last 15 minutes are meant to derail any mundane plot devices and turn it into a more traditional romantic narrative. It is so unfocused that there doesn't even feel like a statement about religion, as established in the first half of the film.

There isn't much to say about Magic in the Moonlight other than it works in spite of itself. Compared to recent gems like Midnight in Paris or Blue Jasmine, it misses the mark. Still, what Allen is great at is consistency. He can get solid performances out of his actors, and this one is no exception. Firth may be playing a British dandy, but he makes the pompous dialogue shine. Stone also looks to be having some fun while playing a coy character who is not entirely clear. The illustrious shots of the locations may be a little dull, but this looks and feels like a solid film that doesn't pander to its audience. Maybe it does play into a few too many late 1920's cliches, but it feels honest, and that goes a long way.

Magic in the Moonlight is a film not to be enjoyed specifically for the mystery element nor the tacked on romance. It is a film that exists solely to have fun. Nothing about it is perfect, but it isn't a waste of time either. It is a film that reflects a master who can take any material and churn out a good film from it. Maybe there are a few missed opportunities, but it allows this to become an actor's showcase, and the results are delightful, if meandering. Those who love Allen will not be disappointed, even if the insight and creativity isn't quite all there.

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