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?
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.
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