SPOILER WARNING: Main Plot Points Revealed.
Wei Ling Soo is a world-famous magician and master illusionist, with every trick in the book at his disposal. Out of costume he is the arrogant, self-important and petulant Stanley Crawford (Colin Firth), an inherent pessimist whose treatment of and attitude towards his peers and co-workers betray a man who does not have much wonder in his own life. Magic in the Moonlight follows Stanley in his mission to debunk the pretty, fair-skinned clairvoyant Sophie Baker (Emma Stone) but along the way he discovers that the rigid and rational world in which he has trapped himself may not be the key to his happiness.
While the message that Woody Allen’s latest film delivers to the audience is sweet, and one that people should take note of, Magic in the Moonlight seems to hit just off the mark. As a big fan of Allen’s films, I am always excited to hear of a new release but I am also accustomed to the occasional feeling of leaving the cinema a little unfulfilled by his endeavours.
Firth’s Crawford is likeable for the most part but not loveable, with his frequently insupportable and pompous attitude to everyone and everything creating a separation between the audience and the character, preventing them from ever becoming entirely emotionally involved. On the other hand, Emma Stone’s depiction of Sophie as the cute, quirky all-American flapper girl brings a much needed warmth and smile to the screen.
The main theme of this film is that of ‘magic’ leading people to think irrationally. Throughout the film we see multiple characters, and eventually even Crawford himself, driven by Sophie’s talents to believe in God, the afterlife, the ability to communicate with lost loved ones and in Sophie’s capacity to predict the future. Nevertheless, in true Woody Allen style, he concludes the film in exposing all of Sophie’s talents to be a farce, thus proving all the ‘magic’ of the afterlife to be unreal and leaving the atheistic flag flying high for all to see.
Despite all this, as we see how much happier Crawford is when he has been convinced of Sophie’s ‘magic’, we ask ourselves: “Is it not better to believe and lead a life that is full of joy and contentment, than to know the truth and be pessimistic and unhappy?” A Baudrillardian question, which is promptly answered at the end of the film as Allen highlights the difference between fantastical magic and real magic – the magic of love.
As we witness Crawford’s realisation that he has in fact fallen in love with Sophie, this ‘magic’ causes him to make the uncharacteristically irrational decision to call off his wedding to his ‘match made in heaven’ fiancée. Even though it makes perfect, logical sense to wed her, he gives into this ‘magic’ and breaks free from his rational world and regains the happiness that he had while he was under the spell of Sophie’s mystical powers.
Philosophy – a favourite topic of Hollywood’s most iconically neurotic director – is another key theme throughout this film. Especially the works of Friedrich Nietzsche, with many references to the German thinker and his ideas influencing Allen’s religiously attentive cult following. One of Nietzsche’s most recognised schools of thought was that of the human race’s requirement of illusions in order to survive, “If you destroy their illusions they will not be able to live at all; they will collapse.”
This idea is evident in the behaviour of the characters that surround Sophie, who rely on her ‘impressions’ for their happiness. This includes the hapless American ‘mark’, Grace Catledge (Jacki Weaver), who is desperate to hear that her late husband remained faithful to her – despite her friends and neighbours informing her to the contrary.
Sadly, though an interesting topic for a film to address, Magic in the Moonlight fails to explore the subject as well as it could have done through a more studious development of its characters. Instead the film attempts to declare itself philosophical by flagrantly referring to Nietzsche on an uncomfortable number of occasions throughout the film – without ever fully infusing the crux of his philosophy in the script.
Even though the writing may have stunted the potential of this film in some places, it is undoubtedly rescued by its visual glory. Every shot is delightfully pleasing on the eye, capturing both the beauty of the Côte d’Azur and the glamour of 1920’s high society, which is perfectly complimented by the exquisite costume design by Sonia Grande.
Magic in the Moonlight is pleasant to watch and adequately entertaining, however in comparison to some of Allen’s previous works, it just falls short.