Amidst his sardonic ramblings, protagonist Stanley (Colin Firth) proudly exclaims, “When the heart rules the head, disaster follows.” What an apt description of Magic in the Moonlight.
Woody Allen’s latest is a study in inauthenticity. Stanley is a white man whose job it is to convince audiences he is an Asian mystic. In his spare time, he travels the world unmasking charlatans who claim to have contact with the “great beyond.” This leads him to the alleged psychic Sophie (Emma Stone), whose spirited tricks he desperately tries to debunk.
If most Allen films feature a proxy for the prolific writer/director, then Stanley has got to be one of his most dour. His disdain for anything magical or religious is cartoonishly overplayed. It becomes obvious that Stanley’s cynical assumptions about the world will be proven wrong by the film’s end. It is obvious foreshadowing at its worst.
Firth’s two-dimensional performance is due in large part to Allen’s writing and direction. Unlike Emma Stone’s affecting Sophie, everything about Stanley is communicated through longwinded, pessimistic monologues about life and death. Where Sophie is an example of “show don’t tell” character development, Stanley is just the opposite. Sophie acts on her feelings; Stanley simply tells us his.
The other culprit is Firth himself. I don’t think the man has ever delivered a truly bad performance, but his turn here doesn’t seem to fit the character. He plays Stanley as loud, belligerent and utterly unlikable. In combination with the character’s abrasive cynicism, it becomes difficult to sympathize with him as Firth angrily stampedes through his dialogue. A quieter, more nuanced performance might have added some much needed humanity to his character.
Happily, Emma Stone is just the opposite. She perfectly captures the kooky air of a phone-a-psychic. Her half-smile and loony façade are the biggest source of laughs in the film. But Stone, a capable dramatic actor in her own right, also bolsters her character with deeper struggles about identity and optimism.
Over the course of her friendship with Stanley, Sophie’s reputation as a psychic grows to national acclaim. But the more fame she finds, the more she begins to question whether there’s more to her than her mystical gift.Stone sells her frustration with an endearing innocence. I was interested to hear her ponder ideas of self-worth and personal agency, but Allen has other ideas. The thread is soon dropped in favor of a ham-fisted love story, my curiosity along with it.
Allen does this with discussions about faith, as well. Religion and atheism are both at the forefront of the public zeitgeist. With Magic in the Moonlight, Allen could have offered a salient examination of modern belief systems. But instead of sharp intellectual commentary – something Midnight in Paris offered in spades – we are subjected to trite and insincere romance.
Stanley oscillates between belief and disbelief with such apparent ease that it quickly loses meaning. He catapults to extremes in every case; either all hope of an afterlife is a lie, or mysticism isn’t a sham and therefore life has value. There is no middle ground for him. This polemic approach to age-old questions is disingenuous and hammers home Stanley’s inviability as a relatable protagonist.
This same capriciousness extends to Stanley’s affection for Sophie. It was tough for me to side with anyone so brazenly egotistical and self-assured. He lacks emotional realism. When his feelings for Sophie are unceremoniously revealed, it feels random and out of place. Worse yet, once I knew, I couldn’t be asked to care.
The third act of a movie is often where loose ends are tied up and the director reaffirms their thesis. It is the crucible that determines its quality. Magic in the Moonlight fails this test. Under Allen’s direction, the narrative foregoes any interrogation of substantive thought. Instead, he insists we focus on the love life of a totally unsympathetic caricature.
Allen made a name for himself with Annie Hall. That movie effectively redefined romantic comedy with offbeat characters and subversive narrative structure. In trying to recapture that spark, he has shoehorned romance into every movie he’s made since.
“When the heart rules the head, disaster follows.” Perhaps Allen should take his own advice.
Movie Verdict: Meh