Magic in the Moonlight is a romantic comedy about an Englishman brought in to help unmask a possible swindle. Personal and professional complications ensue. The film is set in the south of France in the 1920s against a backdrop of wealthy mansions, the Côte d'Azur, jazz joints and fashionable spots for the wealthy of the Jazz Age.
With the same clockwork regularity as the swallows annual return to Capistrano, Woody Allen releases one picture a year, and though surely his fans appreciate his prolific output, for the sake of quality control, he might want to consider varying his rigid schedule now and then. Don't get me wrong; Allen always makes worthwhile, entertaining movies, but an on-again, off-again pattern has developed over the years that ever-so-slightly tempers the level of anticipation his new works engender, as we nervously wonder which Woody will show up. Most recently, after the elegant romantic fantasy 'Midnight in Paris,' Allen produced the strained, slapdash farce 'To Rome With Love,' and on the heels of the searing study of a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown, 'Blue Jasmine,' the writer-director now gives us 'Magic in the Moonlight,' a comic trifle with about as much substance as the froth atop a cup of cappuccino. Allen, as usual, assembles a top-flight troupe of actors, crafts finely tuned dialogue that sounds more like a symphony than a screenplay, and maximizes his impeccably photographed location - in this case, the south of France - but the story possesses neither bark nor bite and begins to crumble about midway through, making the film seem quite a bit longer than its 97-minute running time. 'Magic in the Moonlight' is certainly wispy, but breezy it definitely is not.
Which is not to say it isn't enjoyable. On the contrary, there's a lot to like about 'Magic in the Moonlight,' which often resembles an old-time romp in the vein of Molière, Oscar Wilde, or Noel Coward, but lacks enough fibers to stitch itself together. While many viewers may be entranced enough by the elegant presentation to forgive the narrative shortcomings, I can't let the film off the hook so easily. Allen, after all, is a bona fide genius, and he seems to be coasting a bit here, unwisely banking on a mundane premise that only can be developed so far. Yes, the characters are interesting and plenty of trademark Allen witticisms litter the script, but the two leads, Colin Firth and Emma Stone, don't really click, and their tepid chemistry limits our emotional involvement in the tale. And without such a crucial element firing on all cylinders, the film becomes more of a measured exercise than a fulfilling and memorable experience.
It's 1928 in Berlin and illusionist extraordinaire Stanley Crawford (Firth) - a.k.a. Wei Ling Soo - is riding a wave of unqualified success that fuels his insufferable ego, magnifies his arrogance, and allows him to indulge his disdain for those he deems inferior. The ordered Stanley, a snobbish perfectionist who has "all the charm of a typhus epidemic," claims he's a "rational man living in a rational world," and any other style of existence is "madness." He's affianced to marry a woman of equal stature and reserve, but takes leave of her to travel to Provence to help out his best friend, fellow illusionist Howard Burkan (Simon McBurney), who requires Stanley's counsel and keen perception of character to expose a young itinerant medium, Sophie Baker (Stone), as a fraud. It seems Sophie and her mother (Marcia Gay Harden) have latched on to the Catledges, a wealthy family that seems more than willing to bankroll Sophie's supernatural musings, especially if she can connect with the late husband of matriarch Grace Catledge (Jacki Weaver) in the great beyond. Grace's son Brice (Hamish Linklater) is especially bewitched by Sophie (whom Simon suspects to be a gold-digger) and hopes to woo her, but before things get out of hand, Simon hopes Stanley will denounce her abilities and integrity, and hopefully save the Catledge fortune.
Upon his arrival at the Catledge estate, Stanley vociferously objects to the beguiling, free-spirited Sophie, but as evidence of her supernatural gifts mounts - and she spouts off intimate details of Stanley's life, of which she couldn't possibly possess prior knowledge - the quintessential doubting Thomas (or should I say Stanley) falls under her spell. Her youth, innocence, and appetite for life dazzle and revitalize him, softening his rough edges and helping him hone his remedial interpersonal skills. With newfound vigor, he actively pursues her, thus beginning a rather tepid triangular game of illicit romance.
Aside from a nicely etched character and period portrait, 'Magic in the Moonlight' examines the importance of faith in our lives, and how believing in something, however outlandish or trivial, improves our attitude and helps us withstand the hard knocks of a difficult world. Realism is all well and good, Allen tells us, but a bit of magic can be an essential tonic that might just prove to be our salvation. Such a viewpoint is easy to relate to, but it doesn't really resonate, and once 'Magic in the Moonlight' limps to its predictable finish, it's easily forgettable.
Stanley, of course, is another variation on Allen's persona - here he trades the neurotic ravings of a New York Jew for the judgmental egotism of a stuffy Protestant Brit - and Firth embodies him well. His performance elevates the movie, but he's aided by excellent work from Weaver, Linklater, McBurney, and Harden. Surprisingly, the weak link is Stone, whose bubbly personality seems somewhat constrained by the confines of Allen's meticulously constructed script. While Stone would surely blossom in one of Allen's modern urban comedies, she seems a bit ill at ease in this period setting. She still files an engaging portrayal, but the qualities that have so endeared her to the moviegoing public are not on display, and as a result, her performance feels muted. The 28-year age difference between Stone and Firth also inhibits the believability of their romance. Though I'm well attuned by now to Allen's obsession with older man-younger woman relationships in his films, the device has now become a tired cliché, and 'Magic in the Moonlight' isn't a strong enough film to weather it.
As with all of Allen's movies, time and repeated viewings will most likely bolster one's affection for 'Magic in the Moonlight,' but on first glance, it doesn't measure up to the director's more accomplished works. It's sweet, funny, and basically enjoyable, but for a movie that has the word "magic" in its title, there's not nearly enough of it up there on the screen.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Magic in the Moonlight' arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard case inside a glossy sleeve. A leaflet containing the code to access the Digital HD Ultraviolet copy is affixed to the front cover. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and default audio is DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1. Once the disc is inserted into the player, the static menu with music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.
Although Allen has always had a keen eye for photographing his native New York City, he's equally adept at milking the most out of his European locales, and with 'Magic in the Moonlight,' he and cinematographer Darius Khondji (who also shot 'Midnight in Paris' and 'To Rome with Love') infuse the French Riviera with an appropriate amount of joie de vivre. Top-notch contrast and clarity distinguish this 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer, which also maintains a lovely film-like appearance that lends the scenic locations a naturalistic texture. Colors are gloriously lush - the liquid blue of the azure sea, bold reds, bright and airy pastels, and verdant foliage combine to create a seductive palette that excites the senses. Blacks are rich and deep, too, whites are crisp and never bloom, and fleshtones remain stable and true throughout. Excellent shadow detail keeps crush at bay, background elements are easy to discern, and close-ups highlight fine facial features well. No banding or noise intrude, and any digital doctoring escapes notice. Though the film itself doesn't always live up to expectations, this eye-popping transfer helps perk up the proceedings, keeping us involved even when the story begins to sputter.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track is surprisingly active for a Woody Allen film. Though all of Allen's typically marvelous dialogue is clear and easy to comprehend (except during some of Firth's more frenetic speeches) and all of the period jazz tunes performed by the likes of Bix Beiderbecke and Paul Whiteman benefit from superior fidelity and a lovely depth of tone that allow them to fill the room with ease, what really impresses is the constant stream of ambient effects emanating from all five speakers throughout the film. The subtle yet distinct sounds of waves crashing against the coastline, chirping seagulls, and buzzing insects provide essential atmosphere to this location film. Excellent stereo separation across the front channels also helps widen the soundscape, and solid dynamic range handles all the high- and low-end tones without any distortion. While this mix isn't active enough to be labeled reference quality, it's a very pleasant effort that lends the film an extra bit of life.
Woody Allen discs never contain a plethora of supplements, but this one features a few token extras that sweeten the appeal of this release.
Featurette: "Behind the Magic" (HD, 11 minutes) - Colin Firth, Jacki Weaver, and Hamish Linklater reflect on their experiences making the film, their respective characters, the beauty of southern France, and the camaraderie the cast enjoyed during the production. Firth admits he enjoyed playing an unsympathetic role and that "being told to be as disagreeable as possible is terribly liberating." Weaver ruminates on the appeal of the supernatural, and believes Allen captured "the zeitgeist of the times," while the superfluous Linklater tries a bit too hard to be outrageous and witty. Both Firth and Weaver praise talents of Stone, whose perspectives about working with Allen and her cast mates surely would have enlivened this standard behind-the-scenes featurette.
Featurette: "On the Red Carpet: Los Angeles Film Premiere" (HD, 3 minutes) - Stone is also conspicuously absent for this bit of pleasant banter shot prior to the movie's L.A. premiere. Many of the actors share their impressions of Allen as a director and discuss his nurturing nature and innate perfectionism.
Theatrical Trailer (HD, 2 minutes) - The film's original preview completes the extras package.
The antithesis of last year's 'Blue Jasmine,' 'Magic in the Moonlight' is almost too wispy in story and theme, but Woody Allen's latest romantic comedy delivers its share of clever witticisms and madcap lunacy as it quietly ruminates on love, loyalty, arrogance, and the elusiveness of faith. Unfortunately, the sophisticated, adult script can't quite sustain itself, losing steam during its second half, and making the movie feel a good deal longer than its 97-minute running time. The beguiling Riviera locations and buoyancy of the cast, however, keep the picture afloat, and Sony's sparkling transfer and solid audio enhance the presentation. (Only a couple of extras are included, but that's par for the course for an Allen disc.) 'Magic in the Moonlight' is little more than a trifle, but some fine moments distinguish it and make this cerebral romp worth a look.