Magic In The Moonlight (2014) Enchants Despite Flaws

Let me guess. To see or not to see, that is the question on your mind. No? You’ve decided to skip it, heeding critics’ view that it is a ‘minor’ Woody Allen?

Magic In The Moonlight Poster 1

Well, here’s my take. To begin with, a director’s repertoire has to be large and significant enough to be categorized into ‘major’ and ‘minor’. I’ve enjoyed Allen’s previous ‘minor’ works like Match Point (2005), Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989), or his noir dealing with magic and the circus Shadows and Fog (1991). Or, is that a ‘major’?

For some reasons, even a ‘minor’ Allen work piques my interest. Further, a new Woody Allen movie is like the perennials shooting up in the summer garden. Going to see one has been on my summer to-do list in recent years.

This 47th directorial feature of Allen’s uses magic as the storyline, a reprise of his well-known preoccupation. Instead of casting himself as a magician like he did in Scoop (2006), Allen has Colin Firth play the role of the renowned Wei Ling-soo, master of illusions who specializes in disappearing and reappearing acts shrouded in oriental mystique. Just a reflection of the time, 1928 Berlin.

After a successful show, Stanley Crawford, Wei Ling-soo’s real-life persona, is recruited by his childhood friend and fellow magician Howard Burkan (Simon McBurney) to go with him to the Côte d’Azur in France to debunk a fake clairvoyant, played by Emma Stone.

Stanley is pleased to take up the challenge, for in his rational mind, the spirit world does not exist. He will be doing everyone a favour to expose the trickery of this young, self-proclaimed spiritualist Sophie Baker, whom he firmly believes to be a crook. Stanley tells Howard, ‘she can’t fool me’. In his mind, Sophie and her mother (Marcia Gay Harden) are out to hoodwink the heir of a rich family, Brice (Hamish Linklater) and his mother Grace (Jacki Weaver), a fraudulent scheme that must be thwarted.

You might have read about the mismatch of Firth and Stone starring together. If there is anything that seems incompatible, it is Stone playing a medium with the expertise of contacting the dead in a séance. No matter, Stone’s appearance can only substantiate the magic.

Sure enough, the ‘minor’ notion applies with the film’s simple, stretched-out, single plot line. A subplot could add more texture to the film, and giving some talented actors more story and character development. Further, there are moments and dialogues that look tedious and unnecessary. Thanks to the cast of fine actors, we can see their concerted effort in making the film more interesting than the simple plot can offer.


And there are scenes we have seen before. The Gatsby-esque ball, the observatory moment as in Manhattan (1979), as well as reminiscence of other sources. But then again, are fairy tales not meant to be retold?

You might want to add in one more familiarity. France. This is the second time in four years Allen makes a movie in France. Following the successful Midnight In Paris (2011), cinematographer Darius Khondji reframes the country with idyllic French Riviera through a golden filter. I would not argue against that ‘repeat’.

And the music, how often we hear them in movies depicting the 1920’s, in particular, Allen’s own. From Cole Porter’s “You Do Something To Me” (opening credits, sets the mood right away) to Harry Carroll and Joseph McCarthy’s “I’m Always Chasing Rainbow” (Brice serenading Sophie), from Beethoven to Ravel, music only adds in the magic.

Stanley takes Sophie along for a ride to Provence to visit his Aunt Vanessa (Eileen Atkins). The veteran, low-keyed but always reliable Atkins as the wise and knowing Aunt Vanessa plays a pivotal role in the story. While Sophie has the chance to demonstrate her extraordinary gift by revealing Aunt Vanessa’s past, Aunt Vanessa has also shown that she knows her nephew Stanley much more than he knows himself.

And (possible) spoilers coming up...

One of my favourite scenes is in the third act, when the seemingly oblivious Aunt Vanessa while playing a card game of solitaire is subtly prodding her nephew to clearer self-understanding, to act upon his heart rather than relying only on his rationale. This one reminds me of a nuanced and endearing scene in another movie, exactly with these two actors, Atkins and Firth, playing mother and son and engaging in a similar kind of dialogue. Yes, the two of them are charming together in both. That movie? What A Girl Wants (2003).

But what’s interesting is Colin Firth here shines as a chatty Darcy. He plays the role with such an amusing familiarity as if he has just changed costume from an Austen set to the 1920’s. Stanley feels superior, thinks Sophie beneath him. He is arrogant and smug at the start, challenging and badgering Sophie at every turn, full of pride and prejudice. Why of course, Sophie, from small town America, has not heard of Nietzsche, or Bora Bora, can’t tell Dickens from Shakespeare. A ready target for Stanley’s jest.

And Stanley is such an expert in alienating people. Sophie’s mom Mrs. Baker could not have agreed more with Lizzy’s mom Mrs. Bennet, this guy is an obnoxious snob. From Darcy to Stanley, two sides of the same coin. Firth knows how to play this one by heart.

Quite like Darcy, Stanley is such a poor (first-time) marriage proposer. Take her under his wings? No rational reason for doing this? Against his better judgement? Haven’t we heard such a marriage proposal before when Darcy first messed up his in front of an incredulous and fuming Lizzy Bennet?

Not to aspire to his ‘major’ endeavours, Magic in the Moonlight is a lighter piece in Allen’s humungous directorial repertoire. He deals with it like bringing work on his vacation, emphasis on the vacation. Don’t we all need a break every now and then? And isn’t the French Riviera an ideal spot?

~ ~ ~ Ripples


I’m linking this review to Paulita’s Dreaming of France Monday Meme. CLICK HERE to see what others have posted.


Related Posts on Ripple Effects:

Midnight In Paris (2011)

Blue Jasmine (2013)

To Rome With Love (2012)



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If she’s not birding by the Pond, Arti’s likely watching a movie, reading, or writing a review. Creator of Ripple Effects, bylines in Asian American Press, Vague Visages, Curator Magazine.

32 thoughts on “Magic In The Moonlight (2014) Enchants Despite Flaws”

  1. I agree this is a “minor” Allen but still delightful in many ways (the setting…and for me, most notably Emma Stone). I don’t agree with your categorization of Match Point, however. To me, that was a “major” Allen.


    1. David,

      Sure, that’s why they are in quotation marks. I agree, ‘Match Point’ definitely deals with an issue as major as that in a Dostoevsky novel. Point is, films in either category can be entertaining. 😉


  2. Major or minor, I didn’t even know this Allen film existed. However, it’s on its way to a theater just twenty miles from here. Now, the only question is see, or don’t see? Your review certainly is intriguing, and makes it sound like a perfect hot-afternoon diversion.


    1. Linda,

      At least there’s air-con in the theatre, and the on screen scenery is relaxing. But I’m sure you’ll find the ‘issue’ it deals with interesting, albeit in a ‘minor’ way. Is there a spiritual realm beyond the material… Of course, liking the movie doesn’t mean I subscribe to WA’s world view. I don’t actually need to say this, but just in case there are those who are first-time visitors to the pond and see all these ripples. 😉


  3. Oh I would see it in a flash.. and will do when it gets to Perth.. I wonder why it is that top name stars just love to be in his films, especially when they don’t get the big money they do in big budget films.. Woody Allen is a bit of an enigma, good or bad he does make very ‘real’ movies and if they happen to be set in France.. I’m in 🙂


    1. Grace,

      I’ve come across this interview of CF and ES on working with WA. It might debunk some myths about his directing. Apparently, while the movie seems frothy and light, the process may not have been so easy and smooth. Click here to the interview. You’ll enjoy it. 😉


  4. Arti, I’m not reading your whole review yet, because I’m writing one for Dreaming of France this evening. I hope you’ll come back and post again so people can see both of our opinions on the movie. I’ll be back to read yours too.


  5. Oh I’ll be seeing it for sure! I agree with you that a return to France is always acceptable! 🙂 Thanks for the reminder to watch for it here in Scotland. 🙂


  6. Woody Allen is one of the greatest living directors, in my humble opinion, (I refuse to use the abbreviation for the last four words in that sentence). My favourite film of all time and has been since I first saw it in the seventies is Manhattan. Will wait with baited breath for the reviewed film to be released in the UK.


    1. Chris,

      I must say that this isn’t one to compare to Manhattan, far from it. Nevertheless, it still carries some of the wit of Woody Allen, albeit after decades, he’d need an epiphany to create something strikingly original. But then again, I’ll see any new movies from WA.


  7. Hi Arti, after reading yours & Paulita’s reviews I am all in to see this film. I am a Woody Allen fan so …major / minor …I am not concerned….especially when it is set in France! Thanks!


    1. Sally,

      Hope you’ll enjoy it. You’re welcome to come back and share your thoughts after, throw your two pebbles into the pond and start some ripples. 😉


    1. Paulita,

      Thanks for coming back and for hosting Dreaming of France. What a coincidence that we both have Magic on our minds. 😉 Thanks for leaving the link here. I’ve left my comment under ‘rippleeffects’ on your post.


  8. I swear it never came to my town. Or if it did, it was VERY short lived. I kept looking and looking! However, there is always cable/netflix/the video store. I do want to see it — with that cast, who wouldn’t? And I love Woody’s whimsical side. On another note, just rewatched Midnight in Paris last night and each time I find more to love.


    1. Jeanie,

      Yes, lots of channels to watch a film nowadays. But of course, for me, nothing like the big screen, esp. with the Côte d’Azur as setting and the classy costumes.


  9. I just saw the trailer for this the other day- it starts here next week. I really don’t like Woody Allen, and gave him up as a bad joke in the 80s, although I did end up seeing Midnight in Paris- it was ok. I’m interested enough in France that I’ll probably see this at some stage.


    1. Louise,

      If you don’t like Woody Allen, this isn’t one to try changing your preference. As they say, this isn’t really one of the better of his works, esp. if you think Midnight In Paris was just ok. I’d say, go for Richard Linklater’s Boyhood (my current post). That’s one of the best 2014 movies most definitely. 😉


  10. Yay! It arrived and I went and really enjoyed it! True, it’s not the greatest of Woody’s works but it certainly is charming and Colin Firth and Emma Stone are nothing to sneeze at — indeed, they were rather magical together. And Eileen Atkins can do no wrong in my book! You were spot on about the Pride and Prejudice/Darcy connection — well thought, that one! And I quite liked the twist in the plot near the end. Rather clever — I confess, I hadn’t guessed it! I loved Midnight in Paris and Purple Rose of Cairo and found this to have some of the same magic. Not so much as either of those, but enough to make me very glad I saw it!


    1. Jeanie,

      I’m glad you’d enjoyed the movie, I knew you would. 😉 Minor or major, it’s quite entertaining, enough to occupy our minds and eyes for a couple of hours. Despite the age difference (which had been a contentious point from some), I find them, as you said, charming. And I agree with you about the twist at the end; I was in a way, relieved that it turned out like that.


  11. We also saw this in the last month. Agree pretty much with your review. I agree with “Further, there are moments and dialogues that look tedious and unnecessary. Thanks to the cast of fine actors, we can see their concerted effort in making the film more interesting than the simple plot can offer.” But I must say that we did feel that early on Firth didn’t look particularly comfortable in the role and I did find him a little wooden or awkward. But he warmed to it, and the proposal was priceless. Allen must have had fun writing that! Loved the setting and the costumes. I haven’t seen that other Atkins-Firth film but you’ve intrigued me now. I must look out for it as I’d go see it just for them.

    BTW Tonight daughter (just returned from North America), hubby and I have just finished a P&P festival watching the 1995 series in two nights. We never tired of it. Daughter reckons every time we watch it we all say the same things! She’s probably right.


    1. WG,

      Isn’t it unfortunate that this might be the only WA film Colin Firth will be in. I don’t know, hope not. And it’s unfortunate that the script isn’t one that could allow him to tap his potentials. I regret to say too that since his Oscar win, CF has not been doing so well, not getting good scripts or in his top form. Don’t know why… usually you’ll get better roles after you win an Oscar.


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