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Saturday, July 19, 2014

Magic in the Moonlight Review: An Early Oscar Entry?

The Woody Allen comedy Magic in the Moonlight is finally a work we can be proud of.

Writer/Director Woody Allen is not a favorite of mine; in fact, I consider him to be the most overrated of Hollywood's old school. I've never forgiven him for Annie Hall somehow beating out Star Wars for Best Picture in the 1977 Oscars, and his more recent personal choices are personally offensive. Screening his films is equal to the most unpleasant experiences I can consider, right up there with dentist visits and drawing blood. But Magic in the Moonlight is something else, something far better than anything he's ever done, and it's about damn time.

Set among the flappers and 'hot music' of the 1920's, professional illusionist Stanley Crawford (Colin Firth) is at the height of his game masquerading as Wei Ling Soo. He thrills audiences with his disappearing tricks and fantastic trickery, until he's recruited by old friend and fellow illusionist Howard (Simon McBurney) to debunk the meteoric rise of the spiritualist Sophie Baker (Emma Stone). Her scam is about to trick a wealthy family out of millions, and Stanley won't hear of it, his logical and rigid mind unwilling to give her any credit. But Stanley's a bit...difficult...with anyone he comes into contact with, and soon realizes that Sophie's presence has filled his world with more possibilities than he ever imagined. But he must tread lightly, for as she's seduced the ignorant gentleman Brice (Hamish Linklater), her charm might soon undo the master of illusions himself.

Let's be clear: there are funny original comedies like 22 Jump Street or Neighbors, and then there's Magic. It's witty and full of one intelligent one-liners that lead up to an old-school Oscar Wilde love story that doesn't need sex or vulgarity to sell its wares. Allen has always had such ability, but his projects have languished, stuck in molasses and the final cut always in need of a serious edit. Not with Magic: Allen produces a mostly compact affair that never lingers, content to lead our well-built cast through his script that's like a light breeze keeping you guessing as to its outcome. When the ending arrives, we can almost forgive Stanley for making what could be a terrible decision, because Allen to this point had filled him with so much comedic arrogance that we can't help feeling that Stanley's come such a long way.

Although the troupe is top-notch - including appearances by Marcia Gay-Harden and Jacki Weaver - the story mostly focuses on Firth and Stone. For as much I like him as a dramatic lead, Firth is simply hilarious in his comedic roles when he gets to chew on such meaty and hilarious lines as Allen gives him. Among the most memorable is the worst wedding proposal since Chris O'Donnell's "You win!" line from The Bachelor, an elegantly delightful exchange where Stanley actually takes his 'deal' off the table after Stone rejects what can only be described as his arrogant presumption of her affection. These sorts of admissions by Stanley throughout the film aimed at anyone within distance, alienate friend and foe alike, our laughter serving as a sort of odd approval of his ways. Stone proves that her Gangster Squad and The Help performances weren't just happy accidents, her warming smile hiding the scoundrel that Stanley's ready to break down the moment they meet. Linklater is passable riche boor, his rooster crooning and ukulele skills on display while Sophie tries desperately to feign some sort of approval.

For the first time, I can safely say that Woody Allen has made a memorable - dare I say, Oscar-worthy - film. Magic in the Moonlight is his perhaps his greatest creation, a witty, pompous, Oscar Wilde-like affair that finally demonstrates his full capabilities. This is perhaps the 19th Century version of An Ideal Husband, and isn't it ironic that Firth starred in that film version as well? See this one regardless where it plays, because there is definitely some magic to behold. Magic in the Moonlight is rated PG-13 for for a brief suggestive comment, and smoking throughout and has a runtime of 100 minutes.

Discuss this review with fellow SJF fans on Facebook. On Twitter, follow us at @SandwichJohnFilms, and follow author Matt Cummings at @mfc90125.


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