That Old Black Magic: Woody Allen’s 44th Film Is One of His Best

The wizard of wit heads for the South of France with 'Magic in the Moonlight'

Emma Stone and Colin Firth in Magic in the Moonlight.
Emma Stone and Colin Firth in Magic in the Moonlight.

Woody Allen’s on a hot roll. After conquering London, Barcelona, Paris and San Francisco in recent triumphs, the wizard of wit now heads for the South of France with Magic in the Moonlight, a master stroke of enchantment from one of the few legitimate cinematic geniuses of the modern cinema, with a nimble and tender performance of enormous elegance and charm by Colin Firth that is heart-meltingly romantic. Shot in luscious, buttery Technicolor and 35-mm. instead of flat video or phony looking digital cameras, it has the look and feel of a real movie, and although I can’t believe it’s me saying this, I loved it madly. 

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(4/4 stars)

Written and directed by: Woody Allen
Starring: Emma Stone, Colin Firth and Marcia Gay Harden
Running time: 97 min.

Set in the gorgeous days of the Cote d’Azur in 1928, Woody’s 44th film is also one of his best. It opens with a quick visit to a theatrical performance by an acerbic, irritable and impossibly demanding Chinese illusionist in elaborate Oriental wigs, makeup and scarlet silks, with the stage name Wei Ling Soo. He is in fact a London fraud named Stanley Crawford, played to the hilt by Mr. Firth, who creates some magic of his own in one of the most devastatingly handsome appearances of his career. Supremely arrogant, snobbish and superior, Stanley specializes in debunking myths of the occult and exposing all the fakes who practice it, from card sharks to the pope. When he hears about an American clairvoyant named Sophie Baker (Emma Stone) who has invaded the chateau of the Catledge family from Pittsburgh, employed to conduct séances for the rich and gullible widow (Jacki Weaver) that will bring her closer to the spirit of her late industrialist husband, Stanley cuts short his world tour as Wei Ling Soo and heads for the Mediterranean to save the Catledges from the clutches of this venomous psychic, stopping for a brief vacation with his favorite Aunt Vanessa (a rapturous Eileen Atkins) in Provence.

He arrives, ready for bear, but what a shock—the son (Hamish Linklater) is already a dupe so besotted with Sophie that he plays show tunes on a ukulele and fits her finger with a knockout engagement ring. The family can’t make a single business decision without consulting her first. Now, posing as a certain Stanley Taplinger who made his money in Brazilian coffee beans, the most cynical debunker of spiritual hokum in the world plans to finish her off in record time, but finds himself slowly succumbing to the charismatic American medium himself—beautiful, luminous and knowledgeable about secrets in his own life to which nobody has access but God. Instead of exposing her, Sophie exposes him. This is a Woody Allen movie, so complications ensue.

To a bevy of lush, romantic tunes by Jerome Kern, Cole Porter and Rodgers and Hart, performed by Bix Beiderbecke, Ruth Etting and others, illuminated by formal balls replete with champagne, luscious costumes, larky flappers, tailored white suits and strings of pearls, the movie is so magnificent to look at that I’m convinced Woody should have directed The Great Gatsby instead of Baz Luhrmann. Filmed with the opulence of birthday cake castles, smart period cars and blue Mediterranean waves lapping the beaches of Nice, Cap d’Antibes and St. Tropez in the background, it makes you realize what George Bernard Shaw meant when he said, “The French don’t deserve their country.” It doesn’t matter if the script is slight and the story thin as a lemon wedge. The impact of so much elegance and sophistication is profound. The acting is beyond perfection: Ms. Stone far surpasses her gumdrop-eyed sweetness as Spider-Man’s girlfriend, Marcia Gay Harden has center stage moments of her own as Sophie’s mother, Ms. Atkins is delicious as the wise, pragmatic aunt, and Mr. Linklater sings “It All Depends on You” so out of tune in a Roaring Twenties version of a Speedo that is irresistible. 

But it’s Mr. Firth’s picture, and he holds on like a puppy with a new bone. Mr. Firth has an insouciance light as a soufflé and a range of emotion from disillusioned arrogance to romantic surrender. Huffing and harrumphing like Nigel Bruce or Charles Coburn, terrified to show the romantic side he’s managed to successfully hide for years, then collapsing with the realization that somebody has the blind effrontery to turn him down in his own marriage proposal, he dominates the center ring. In the scene where he finally reveals what’s in his heart to his Aunt Vanessa, he’s like a chameleon changing colors as monstrous egocentricity gives way to the first boyish blush of romanticism in a feat of acting that is really staggering. Magic in the Moonlight suggests true love is really the only magic there is—and proves it.

That Old Black Magic: Woody Allen’s 44th Film Is One of His Best