' ' Cinema Romantico: Magic in the Moonlight

Tuesday, August 05, 2014

Magic in the Moonlight

The opening images of “Magic in the Moonlight” involve an English magician, Stanley Crawford (Colin Firth), in the guise of a Chinese illusionist, Wei Ling Soo, making an elephant onstage disappear. Yet, while such fantastical industriousness would seem ripe for astonished gasps, the audience is notably reserved, polite but not wowed, as if they have seen this show before and the disappearing elephant is simply old hat for its illusionist, just another a variation on the same trick from the same bag.

The themes of Woody Allen’s 44th or 55th or 67th or 78th (I have no idea anymore) feature film are the same ones that have been of concern his whole career, best summarized in the perhaps the film’s best line when Stanley reduces the expanse of the nighttime sky and the pull of the entire universe as “menacing.” What else could it be if we don’t know what’s truly out there, whatever there constitutes in the narrative of your own existence (if your own existence is real, that is). The ideas explored in “Magic in the Moonlight” most resemble, to my eye, “Shadows and Fog” (1992), Allen’s ode to German Expressionism for which I have immense fondness. It melded ideas of religion and philosophy and magic in a way that allowed for its auteur’s trademark funny business while also providing an arresting eeriness. It also knew that such matters went beyond a mere love triangle, which is the plot point on which “Magic in the Moonlight” creakily turns.

Insistently presented as a skeptic of the surreal and champion of pragmatism to such a degree that I would not be surprised to learn he handed out instructions at the end of each magic show detailing how each trick was executed, Stanley is summoned by his fellow, if not quite as renowned, illusionist Howard Burkan (Simon McBurney) to debunk a young American woman from Kalamazoo, Sophie Baker (Emma Stone), claiming to be a mystic in contact with the spirit world. She is engaged to a serenading richy rich (Hamish Linklater), who is, as is The Woodman’s writing custom anymore, presented as such a dufus all the air in the purported “triangle” is dead from the get-go. In but a few sequences Stanley goes from staunch opponent of spiritualism to devout believer, though his investigative work into discrediting her seems virtually non-existent. He mostly just pontificates about she’s a fraud because he knows she’s a fraud. Until he decides she isn’t a fraud because the screenplay wants them to fall in love. (I sense Neil deGrasse Tyson would have exposed her in about 14 seconds. But I digress.) And so they do, as Stanley suddenly pivots in the face her spiritual profundity and embraces the beauty of life before a crude god of machine upends his newfound joy.

Watching “Magic in the Moonlight” is like reading the first draft of a screenplay before it’s been refined. Everyone speaks in endless declarative sentences that demonstrate no love of language. Emma Stone struggles with it, though she is afforded no favors by the stagnant direction, which generally sets her amidst admittedly swoony 1920’s frames and then just has her awkwardly, helplessly stand in them, leaving her to mentally scream “WILL SOMEONE GIVE ME SOME DIRECTION?!” Firth, however, combats the stilted dialogue, and even manages against all odds to transform his character’s jarring transitions into something plausible, like he’s a man entirely made up of mood swings.

Alas, his nobility is countered by unconquerable odds, as the film ignores truly exploring the Bigger Questions at the center of the story. They are merely romantic roadblocks in the disguise of metaphysics. And the romance fails to rise not necessarily because the third member of the triangle is a schmuck (though that doesn’t help) but because Stone and Firth's chemistry seems oddly (or not) like a lecturing teacher and a churlish pupil.

One scene finds them admiring a stunning seaside view. Firth is unimpressed. “It’s transient,” he says. You’re telling me.

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