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"MAGIC IN THE MOONLIGHT"
(2014) (Colin Firth, Emma Stone) (PG-13)


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QUICK TAKE:
Comedy: A 1920s era magician who specializes in debunking anything supernatural must contend with a young spiritualist who might just be the real deal.
PLOT:
It's 1928 and Stanley Crawford (COLIN FIRTH) is an Englishman who performs magic acts under the guise of a Chinese conjuror known as Wei Ling Soo. He's quite good at what he does, but he has few friends due to his ego and condescending attitude toward most everyone but his fiancée.

Aside from his magic, he's also known for debunking spiritual fraudsters who take advantage of those gullible enough to belief their paranormal claims. It's that reputation that's caused one of his few friends and fellow magician, Howard Burkan (SIMON MCBURNEY), to call him to the south of France to expose the latest such clairvoyant medium.

She's Sophie Baker (EMMA STONE), a young American who's traveling the world with her stage mother/manager, Mrs. Baker (MARCIA GAY HARDEN), shocking people with her ability to conjure up little known facts about people, conduct séances and so on. Her latest target is the Catledge family, a wealthy clan of aristocrats where the matriarch, Grace (JACKI WEAVER), wants to communicate with her late husband, all while Grace's son, Brice (HAMISH LINKLATER), has become enamored with Sophie and wants to marry her. His sister, Caroline (ERICA LEERHSEN), and her husband, George (JEREMY SHAMOS), had previously brought in Howard to prove Sophie to be a fraud, but so far he says he's been unable to figure out her trick.

Stanley, who uses the trip as a good reason to visit his Aunt Vanessa (EILEEN ATKINS), is certain he won't have similar problems as his success rate at debunking such people so far has been perfect. Yet, as he ends up surprised by details Sophie reveals that she couldn't possibly know otherwise, Stanley begins to ponder if she might actually be the real thing with such real powers. As he continues his quest to see if that's true or not, his outlook on life begins to change.

OUR TAKE: 5 out of 10
As far as quick and easy access to information goes, there's never been anything like the Internet in terms of readily available knowledge. Despite that and plenty of ways to conduct personal fact checking, however, far too many people continue to be gullible about fake or modified "news" they read, see or hear; rumors that are spread; and photos and videos that are shared across the nation and world like pandemic outbreaks despite likely being digital manipulations.

Back in the day, con artists, swindlers and so-called snake oil salesmen similarly took advantage of plenty of people who either didn't know any better or simply were too trusting of others. That was particularly true when it came to helping people part ways with their hard-earned cash, especially since such fraudsters had usually moved on to another city or town by the time their ruse was discovered, if at all.

That's part of the nostalgic fun of "Magic in the Moonlight," Woody Allen's seemingly umpteenth film (the man is certainly nothing but prolific in churning out one movie after another) and latest set in Europe. It's a lightweight comedy that revolves around a late 1920s era magician (Colin Firth) who not only fools people by his sleight of hand, but also his appearance (he dons the physical look of a Chinese conjuror known as Wei Ling Soo).

He's good at what he does, but is a decidedly prickly sort with few friends and who's also known as a spiritual debunker (a predecessor to The Amazing Randi, if you will) who takes delight in exposing mediums, spiritualists and other such purveyors of supernatural powers as nothing but frauds. With his reputation preceding him, he's called to France by his fellow magician "friend" (Simon McBurney) to have a look at a young American spiritualist (Emma Stone) who's working with a wealthy family that's become enamored with her and her gifts.

Arriving under the guise of being an importer/exporter (a predecessor to George Costanza's Art Vandalay), Stanley is certain he'll make short order of the young woman from Kalamazoo, and the initial scenes of their comedic antagonism are fun and lively (with Allen, again penning his own screenplay, delivering some terrific dialogue early on). And with Sophie apparently possessing some sort of ability to know things she wouldn't otherwise, it's entertaining and engaging as you ponder where Allen might be taking his story and characters.

Unfortunately, and despite some obvious potential to examine faith, religion, science, and yes, the supernatural, the filmmaker lets the air slip out of the balloon he had been building up with precision just moments before. It's not a cinematic catastrophe by any means, but this turns out to be fairly light Allen material that progressively becomes less interesting as it unfolds. And a big part of the problem lies with the fact that as the writer Allen all too quickly abandons the central comedy-based, potential romance tinged conflict between the two main characters.

Think of most any TV show where a man and woman verbally spar in a perturbed yet flirtatious manner, saying witty and clever things many a viewer wish they could have spoken at some point in their lives. The entertainment lies in the "will they or won't they" aspect of their relationship, but the fun usually lessens quite dramatically once they commit to one another and the sparks stop flying or at least drop off noticeably in quantity and quality. Any number of such televised programs have lost their luster, ironically, once they delivered what the viewers were longing for.

The same holds true here. Once Stanley thinks that Sophie might be the real deal (in terms of paranormal abilities) and then questions his own viewpoint of life, the tension is gone and the film never recovers (especially as things ultimately play out exactly like most viewers will be able to predict). It doesn't help that much of the second half is filled with short scenes that come and go without ultimately feeling as if they've really done anything for the characters or move the story forward.

The performances are generally fine (with Stone coming off as the most appealing, even if she doesn't always sound the part -- via dialogue -- of being a 1920s era young woman), the costumes and production design are immaculate, and -- as usual for an Allen flick -- the score and soundtrack are filled with appropriately aged, vintage sounds.

I just wish the film had managed to maintain the fun energy and creativity of its earlier moments throughout. Sadly, once the involved sparks lessen in number and ultimately dry up, so does most of the film. There might have been literal and figurative magic early on, but not enough throughout to warrant "Magic in the Moonlight" scoring more than a 5 out of 10.




Reviewed July 14, 2014 / Posted July 25, 2014


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