Review: Magic in the Moonlight (2014)

Woody Allen’s Magic in the Moonlight is both satisfying and frustrating. It’s a decent light comedy, but it’s held down by its inability to be anything other than exactly what you’d expect from Woody Allen. But doesn’t the pleasure of a Woody Allen comedy stem from it being a Woody Allen comedy? Let me explain.

Magic in the Moonlight is set in 1928, but the formal style, dialogue, and plot recall the screwball comedies of the 1930s. Colin Firth plays Stanley Crawford, a world famous illusionist who performs as Wei Ling Soo, his “mysterious Oriental” persona, which was a common practice at the time. Stanley’s friend and fellow illusionist Howard (Simon McBurney) invites him to a villa in the south of France to observe and expose a young spiritualist named Sophie (Emma Stone). Sophie and her mother (Marcia Gay Harden) have taken up with a wealthy English widow (Jacki Weaver) and her handsome, dull son (Hamish Linklater), who dotes on Sophie. Stanley, a rationalist and strict materialist as well as a misanthrope, has a particular passion for debunking spiritualism.

The film takes the repartee common to screwball comedy and turns it into a kind of light philosophical dialogue, full of platitudes and competing declarations of fact, about whether there is something more to this material world, whether you want to call it magic or the spiritual. Belief in the supernatural is voiced by Sophie and the other guests at the villa, while rationalistic materialism is vigorously maintained by Stanley. Of course, all the best lines go to Firth, who’s a pleasure to watch as the cantankerous Stanley.

The problem for Stanley, though, is the more he observes Sophie, the less he is sure that she’s a fake. The girl is good, and as he begins to question his own scepticism the two start to become friends—and perhaps something more?


Spoiler warning! If you don’t want to know the answer to that question, read no further.


Of course, there’s something more between them, and of course there’s nothing more to the world. This is a Woody Allen movie after all.

In spite of Colin Firth and Emma Stone’s great difference in age, and in spite of a lack of any kind of romantic tension between them on screen, Allen brings the two together in order to assert his tired, and increasingly creepy, theme that the heart wants what it wants. The only irrationality Allen will allow is romantic love. While Stanley and Sophie’s union accords with the screwball comedy formula, why Allen couldn’t allow simply an interesting friendship to develop between them is beyond me.

The eventual revelation that Sophie is indeed a fake also means that the film’s philosophical dialogue between belief and rationalism is actually a straw man debate. The entire philosophical development of the film is summed up in the scene where Stanley begins to pray, recognizes that his prayer is a product of fear, and then reaffirms his original strict materialism. While belief can certainly be emotionally motivated, Allen seems to be incapable of fully recognizing how Stanley’s passion for debunking has just as much to do with his misanthropy and emotional armour as it does with his rationalism. Furthermore, the fact that emotional justification is later allowed for romance but never for religious or spiritual belief begins to look uncomfortably like self-justification on Allen’s part. In the end, Stanley, still a jerk, is allowed to get the much younger girl without any sort of real change on his part.

And so, on one level, the unfolding of this predictable screwball comedy is as satisfying as clockwork, but on another, deeper level I found it frustrating. Yes, Firth nails his role, Emma Stone is good with the limited role she is given, and the plot is nice and tight, but I kept hoping for something a little bit, well, more. And I’m not talking about wanting a major work instead of a minor one. What I mean is that, in Magic in the Moonlight, Allen’s peculiar view of the world looks increasingly warped and narrow to an extent that I found this film of many pleasures ultimately disagreeable.

5 out of 10

Magic in the Moonlight (2014, USA)

Written and directed by Woody Allen; starring Colin Firth, Emma Stone, Simon McBurney, Hamish Linklater, Marcia Gay Harden, Jacki Weaver, and Eileen Atkins.