Magic in the Moonlight: Woody Allen’s Slight Whimsical Fantasy

magic_in_the_moonlight_posterAfter a string of critical and commercial successes (Midnight in Paris, Blue Jasmine), Woody Allen is back to his old tricks with Magic in the Moonlight, a slight, old-fashioned and repetitive tale, which does take full advantage of its fresh cast (Colin Firth and Emma Stone, both new to the director’s work) and lush landscape of the French Riviera.

As a romantic comedy, Magic in the Moonlight feels like an older screenplay that Allen has pulled out of his drawer, to which he added some new touxhes once he decided to shoot (for the first time for him) in this particular locale, made memorable by Hitchcock in “To Catch a Thief,” back in 1954, starring Cary Grant and Grace Kelly.

The new movie shows repetitious continuity, rather than fresh exploration, of ideas, themes, and characters that have prevailed in the auteur’s rich oeuvre over the past four decades.

Allen says has been fascinated with magic since he started performing tricks as a teenager.  Indeed, magic and magicians have often made appearances in his work: in his famous standup routine “The Great Renaldo”; in his O. Henry Prize-winning short story “The Kugelmass Episode”; in his play “The Floating Lightbulb” (where a main character is a young magician); in the “Oedipus Wrecks” segment of “New York Stories”; and in “Scoop,” in which he memorably played the magician, The Great Splendini, himself.

His films have also included hypnotists (Broadway Danny Rose, The Curse of the Jade Scorpion), a healer (Alice), and a fortune teller (You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger).

Many of his other films, most notably Zelig, The Purple Rose of Cairo, Midnight in Paris), have whimsical fantasy woven into their tales, as does his new romantic comedy, Magic in the Moonlight.

Spiritual mediums were prevalent during the 1920s, when the new story is set. “At the time much was made of it,” says Allen. “Very renowned people like Arthur Conan Doyle (the creator of Sherlock Holmes) took it very seriously. There were all kinds of incidents like spirit photographs that people were wondering about. Séances were very common.” The greatest magician of that era, Harry Houdini, attended many séances, debunking every clairvoyant he encountered. Interestingly, Houdini wasn’t motivated by a desire to expose con artists, but by his sincere longing to discover that communicating with the dead was possible. Finding so much fraud was a disappointment to him, but at the time of his death, he still held out hope for an afterlife.

On the surface, Stanley Crawford (Colin Firth) seems to be the opposite of Houdini. A world-famous magician who performs in disguise as the Chinese conjurer Wei Ling Soo, Stanley rejects outright the possibility of any afterlife. “He is an intelligent, scientific-minded, rational person, so what he sees as the stupidity of the gullible public and the fraudulently exploited grates on him,” says Allen.

Says Colin Firth, who plays Stanley: “He is supercilious, judgmental, cynical and arrogant, and has a very high opinion of his superior intellect. As a specialist in the art of illusion, he is a skeptic when it comes to anything that is spiritual, mystical, or occult. He prides himself on exposing the people who claim that there is actually something genuinely magical going on at things like séances.” Firth continues: “I don’t think I have ever played a protagonist in a film who gets so close to being completely unsympathetic. I’m sure the audience is rooting for him to get a pie in the face. The degree to which he is so completely dismissive of everybody else makes you long for him to be taken down a peg or two.”

Stanley is intrigued when his childhood friend and fellow magician, Howard Burkan (Simon McBurney), tells him about a young psychic, Sophie Baker (Emma Stone), who is living with a wealthy American family, the Catledges, in the south of France.  Howard has tried everything he can think of to expose any trickery on her behalf, but is completely baffled by her apparent powers. Howard proposes that Stanley postpone his planned trip with his fiancée Olivia (Catherine McCormack), to come to the south of France and expose Sophie as a fraud.

“I think the reason Stanley enjoys Howard’s company is because he makes him feel good about himself,” says McBurney. “Howard openly acknowledges him as the more accomplished performer, and this confirms Stanley’s place in the pantheon of great magicians.” Making his appeal to Stanley as “the greatest debunker in the world,” Howard persuades Stanley to take on the challenge.