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Monday, Aug. 4, 2014

Magic in the Moonlight

Woody Allen at the Limits of Reason

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Magic in the Moonlight
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With his latest European-set piece, Magic in the Moonlight, Woody Allen pulls off a remarkable feat by folding an essay on metaphysics into a glamorously entertaining package. Magic in the Moonlight evokes a bygone era, staging the 1920s as a lavish period piece worthy of “Masterpiece Theatre,” complete with gleaming motorcars, flapper fashion and jazz dance bands.

Magic stars tightly buttoned Colin Firth as Stanley, a world-famous illusionist and escape artist on the European stage. Renowned a la Houdini as a debunker of psychics and mediums, Stanley is called upon to investigate a blithe-spirited American woman, Sophie (Emma Stone). She has attached herself to a wealthy expatriate family on the French Riviera. Clairvoyant or clever gold digger? Sophie seems to have incredible knowledge of people and events picked up through “mental vibrations.” “She won’t fool me,” Stanley announces with grim determination as he sets forth to slay another dragon of the paranormal.

Unlike a good stage magician, Allen keeps the wires and pulleys of his plot in plain sight. Repulsion will attract and love will follow for Stanley and Sophie. But the plot is not the point, providing only an attractively furnished stage for Allen’s exploration of such recurring themes as love, death and God. Even if Stanley is correct in presuming Sophie as just another psychic charlatan, he comes across as the less attractive character with his arrogant, priggish insistence on a world defined by logic, reason and the scientific method. Emotions can’t be weighed on a scale or measured by the yard; they are impervious to reason, ergo, excluded from consideration. Stanley is a bit of a jerk. A psychiatrist staying at the seaside villa where Stanley meets Sophie describes the illusionist as suffering from a “negative personality disorder,” a depressive who became an escape artist to escape the dire logic of his philosophy. Perhaps more a Jungian than a Freudian, he adds, “Who’s to say what’s possible?”

Stone is fetching and plays the role of the American innocent abroad; her platitudes on the “unseen world” are less irksome even if less sincere that Stanley’s supercilious smugness. Perhaps Stanley’s beloved Aunt Vanessa (Eileen Atkins), a tolerant agnostic, represents Allen’s conclusion on the meaning of it all: “We really don’t know. We’re just poor, limited human beings.” And the director seems to concur with Nietzsche, whose quote echoes throughout Magic in the Moonlight: “People, don’t destroy people’s lies, their illusions, because if you destroy their illusions, they will not be able to live at all.”