Berlin, 1928. Stanley Crawford (Colin Firth) is a renowned magician working under the guise of Wei Ling Soo. He marvels audiences by making elephants vanish on stage, cutting women in half, and performing a trick in which he enters a box, disappears, and then rematerializes in a chair ten feet away. But there’s no magic involved here; there is logic behind everything Stanley does and if pressed, he can answer how he pulls off each trick. You see, Stanley doesn’t believe in magic, or God, or even true love. Much to the chagrin of his beloved Aunt Vanessa (Eileen Atkins), Stanley is a cynic.
One evening, Howard (Simon McBurney), Stanley’s oldest friend, visits the illusionist. Howard was hired by American socialites, George and Caroline (Jeremy Shamos and Erica Leerhsen), to debunk the clairvoyant powers of a woman named Sophie Baker (Emma Stone), who has taken Caroline’s brother, Brice (Hamish Linklater) and mother (Jacki Weaver) under her spell. Brice is so smitten he wants to marry Sophie. Caroline is concerned for her brother’s well being, as well as his fortune. Howard has been unable to uncover Sophie’s tricks and requires the help of the greatest illusionist he knows. Stanley’s ego can’t resist this challenge, so he agrees to help.
Stanley and Howard travel to the French Riviera where Stanley expects to immediately expose Sophie’s fraudulence, and then spend some time with his aunt. Except that he can’t. He sits in wonder as Sophie communicates with the dead without any wires or strings, and she pulls information about Stanley’s life from the ether. Stanley wonders, “Could she really have mystical powers.” He’s rattled to his core, his stance against faith and believing in the unknown placed on wobbly ground. What Stanley learns is that he wants to believe, and in believing, he finds himself, for the first time in decades, actually happy.
The more time Stanley spends with Sophie, the harder he falls for her, which is troubling since Stanley is engaged to a sensible, handsome woman who would be his logical mate, and Sophie is more street smart than book smart (although she picks up on Nietzsche pretty quickly). Sophie seems to be falling for Stanley, as well, which won’t help her station in life (much to the chagrin of her manager/mother played by Marcia Gay Harden). But love trumps logic in Sophie’s eyes. This is a romantic comedy in the truest sense, so you know how it will end. But as with every romance, the fun is watching the two characters go through their trials until they’re finally happy.
Magic in the Moonlight may not be Woody Allen’s deepest film, but the acclaimed auteur has earned the right to write and direct populous entertainment in between the dramas and his more complex works. That’s not to say that Magic in the Moonlight isn’t thought provoking. In fact, one of the principal themes is religion and faith in God. Not exactly the kind of discussions you’d find in a typical Kate Hudson rom-com. The film is full of the kind of precise, pitch perfect acting you come to expect in a Wood Allen movie. Firth captures Stanley’s snobbish behavior and confusion as well as any character he’s played since winning his Academy Award for The King’s Speech. Emma Stone is flawless. Hard to believe she’s only been in the feature business for seven years (Spuerbad was 2007), as she acts circles around most of her peers.
Allen’s knack for catching a period of time so accurately makes the film equally enjoyable. From the sets and costumes, the dialogue to the music selections, you will be transported back to 1928 Europe.
One final note: Toward the end of the film, Allen has written a scene that takes place between Stanley and his Aunt Vanessa. Most of it is a single wide shot of just the two characters. Aunt Vanessa spends the entire scene playing Solitaire, while Stanley argues with her (but actually himself) about choosing logic over love. It’s a brilliant scene displaying that Allen is still a master of his craft. The dialogue is funny, has a touch of drama, and ultimately is all about the heart. It’s a winner, just like the rest of Magic in the Moonlight.
Magic in the Moonlight is available on DVD and Blu-ray through Sony Picture Classics.