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A Life Of Illusion: Magic In The Moonlight

Updated on April 5, 2015

An illusionist gets a call from a colleague to help uncover a psychic as a fraud in Magic In The Moonlight. Colin Firth stars as Stanley Crawford, who performs tricks and travels the world in the late 1920s using a Chinese stage name and image. One nght, following a performance, Stanley's old friend and fellow illusionist, Howard Burkan (Simon McBurney), confronts Stanley with a problem. Some American friends of Howard's staying in France have become fascinated by Sophie Baker (Emma Stone), who claims psychic abilities, and has traveled there with her mother and manager (Marcia Gay Harden). Sophie has been conducting seances with Grace Catledge (Jacki Weaver), the widowed matriarch of the Catledge family. Howard gets Stanley, who pretends to be a businessman, to observe one of Sophie's seances and see if he can observe any tricks she might be using. Stanley can't find one.

Sophie, meanwhile, starts to see through Stanley's ruse without him saying. While there, Stanley and Sophie start seeing more of one another, even though he has a fiancée in London, and Grace's son Brice (Hamish Linklater), wishes to make a life with Sophie. One day, Stanley and Sophie pay a visit to Stanley's Aunt Vanessa (Eileen Atkins), and Sophie seems to know about something about Vanessa's past without having met her previously. As the days pass, Stanley starts to rethink his attitude about the unknown. The attraction begins to grow between Stanley and Sophie, until Aunt Vanessa becomes seriously injured in an auto accident. When he thinks about praying for his aunt's recovery, Stanley also ponders that first séance he saw, and something that didn't occur to him.

Magic In The Moonlight, which was written and directed by Woody Allen, pales in comparison to other Allen works on similar matters. In A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy, Allen's charaacters spend time in a pastoral setting while questions of attraction arise. In You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger, a woman turns to a psychic for help, but Allen never says whether or not the psychic really helps. The characters in Magic aren't that appealing, especially when the motives for Stanley's visit are revealed. I don't know how to create illusions personally, but I never thought Sophie was the real deal. I also thought that something would bring Stanley and Sophie together. Magic, like much of Allen's work, looks great, but the script is banal.

The performances, especially by Firth and Stone, also rise above the story. Firth is especially good as Stanley, the cynical and occasionally abrasive performer whose belief system gets challenged during his French visit. The sequence of him performing his act as Wei Ling Soo is quite good as he wows a crowd. While he might like to fool the crowd, he has to learn how to deal with the phenomena he cannot control. That not only extends to his failure to recognize what Sophie does, but to the young woman herself. His meeting her, though, takes him to a place in his past that was filled with wonder, and their visit to a local planetarium rekindles some wonder. Stone is sweet as Sophie, a psychic by trade who wants to entertain and live in her own way. She knows Brice would give her everything, but she thinks Stanley might give her something of greater value. The standout among the support is Atkins as the wise and ever-loving Aunt Vanessa, who sees a side of her nephew he'd not shown in a long time.

Magic In The Moonlight, sadly, shows a common thread found in most of Allen's 21 century efforts. He's told tales like this before, and done so more effectively. The movie may be set in 1928, but its story suggests the film might have fared better had it been made in 1928.

On a scale of zero to four stars, I give Magic In The Moonlight 2.5 stars. It looks good, and has good performances, but it's as cliché as saying "Abracadabra."


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