Film Review: Magic in the Moonlight (USA, 2014)

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Have you ever noticed how the men and women in Woody Allen’s films somehow manage to resemble new-age replicas of Woody Allen and Diane Keaton? Take the way they walk, for instance: Hips thrust forward, shoulders slightly stooped, hands in pockets if they’re men, or arms dangling about if they’re women… It’s seriously noticeable. If you’re not sure what I mean, watch Magic in the Moonlight, and all will be revealed. The cast’s endearingly awkward body movements are small symptoms of a film that is epidemically ‘Woody Allen’.

The ‘Woody-ness’ begins with the scenario: The great magician, Wei Ling Soo, A.K.A. Stanley (Colin Firth), is engaged by his trusted friend Howard Burkan (Simon McBurney) to uncover the truth behind the talents of a young American soothsayer named Sophie, who is currently enrapturing the champagne set of the Cote D’Azure with her ability to commune with the dead. Stanley is notoriously cynical about the existence of true magic and is confident he will be able to uncover Sophie’s tricks. He visits the home of wealthy Americans, the Catledges, who have taken Sophie and her mother under their wing. But what begins as a confident attempt to expose a fresh-faced ingénue, quickly becomes a crisis of conviction for Stanley as he is forced to accept that perhaps Sophie is the real thing, and that magic does exist, after all.

This is one of the tightest scripts I have ever seen. There isn’t a line of dialogue that doesn’t serve an important plot or character function. You can almost feel the filmmakers ticking the plot points off their list as we go along. This does mean that the plot lacks the whimsy of a film like Vicky Christina Barcelona, and you quickly learn not to expect any major twists and turns. But Magic makes up for it with scenery that is so beautiful and light, so dreamy, that, rather than feeling restricted by the script, we feel warm and cosy in the arms of such confident storytellers.

Like so many of Woody’s films, the supporting cast is awesome. (Remember Jackie Hawkins in Blue Jasmine, or the Oscar-winning supporting cast of Hannah and her Sisters?). In Magic in the Moonlight, Jackie Weaver and Simon McBurney are wonderful and Hamish Linklater is likeable– if easily dismissed– as Brice Catledge. In the leading roles, Emma Stone is hammy and it’s enjoyable. Colin Firth’s portrayal of the great Wei Ling Soo starts off well. He is wonderful at playing the cantankerous cynic. It’s not until later in the film, when Stanley begins to soften, that Firth becomes a little less convincing. His character makes several critical about-faces throughout, and the film relies quite heavily on his ability to sell the changing emotions. He gets there, almost, but not with the same amount of gusto that he has in roles like A Single Man or The King’s Speech. Not that it really matters.

Finally, it wouldn’t be a Woody Allen film without a fun and jazzy soundtrack. Magic’s music is light and upbeat, and adds to the happy, nostalgic mood that glows throughout the film.

As far as Woody Allen films go, Magic in the Moonlight isn’t Blue Jasmine and it isn’t Annie Hall. It’s got the same flair, but it’s not quite Midnight in Paris either. What Magic in the Moonlight is, is a nice sunny afternoon drive in the countryside, which will leave you wanting to drink champagne and eat mini-cakes. If you like Woody Allen films, you’ll feel warm and fuzzy about seeing this one.

Review Score: THREE STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Magic in the Moonlight is in Australian cinemas from tomorrow, August 28th.