Even if you somehow didn’t know about the pedophilia claims leveled against Woody Allen by ex Mia Farrow and her daughter, and even if you somehow didn’t know about his marriage to another daughter of Farrow’s—who he helped raise before they began a romantic relationship—the idea of essentially remaking the 102-year-old “Pygmalion” in 2014 would be weird. Haven’t we moved past watching a crotchety old man make merciless fun of a beautiful young woman, and then her falling in love with him for some reason, and calling it entertainment? But every Woody Allen movie has a protagonist who acts as his surrogate, and watching “Magic in the Moonlight,” and seeing that protagonist fall for a girl who is practically 30 years his junior, feels very bizarre indeed.
And there’s also the fact that “Magic in the Moonlight” just isn’t a very good movie. Aside from the off-putting central romance, the predictable dialogue and utterly unsurprising plot aren’t accomplishing anything of note, either.
The film is set in 1928, when magician Stanley (Colin Firth, of “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”) dresses up as an Asian man, in full yellowface makeup, and performs under the stage name Wei Ling Soo; he’s internationally famous but no one knows it’s Stanley under there. Nevertheless, he likes it that way, especially because he’s a grumpy old fart who doesn’t believe in anything spiritual- or faith-related and makes side money publicly unveiling frauds. Because he’s so extremely dismissive of anyone claiming to be telepathic or clairvoyant, Stanley is approached by his close friend but professional rival Howard (Simon McBurney, of “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”), who has heard of a young woman supposedly communicating with the spirits of a renowned Pittsburgh family spending time in the French Riviera. They’re rich; she’s not; and now their heir is in love with her and proposing marriage. Hired by the heir’s siblings to debunk the girl and deny her a lifetime of leisure, Howard needs some help—so to Stanley he goes.
At first, Stanley is convinced it’s all a sham, because all signs point that way. Sophie (Emma Stone, of “The Amazing Spider-Man 2”) is campy and kooky, her personality a collection of quirks; who could really act that like that? She’s a package deal with her mother, and together they have almost secured a huge sum from the Catledge family to create an institute to investigate Sophie’s mysterious gift—also suspicious. Then Stanley meets her, and he can’t help but be charmed (naturally, she’s beautiful and vivacious)—and shocked when Sophie rattles off secrets about him like it’s nothing. She knows he’s Wei Ling Soo. She knows about his only close family relationship, with an aunt who lives nearby. And when she holds a séance to communicate with the deceased Catledge patriarch, it seems like she’s truly communicating with the dead man.
Altogether, these experiences shake Stanley to his core. If he’s been dismissive of spirituality and faith and belief all these years, but if Sophie is for real, then what has his entire life been? And there’s also the confusing way he feels about this young girl, who he mocks for not knowing about Nietzsche or other famous thinkers or authors of the time, and whose relationship with the Catledge heir he treats with disdain, and yet whom he can’t stop thinking about. She’s opening up the world to him—how can he turn away from it, or from her?
“Magic in the Moonlight” is lucky it’s such a beautiful-looking movie (who can resist the French Riviera during the 1920s, with all the opulent, careless wealth being tossed around?) with such likeable actors (Stone, with those huge eyes, could get anyone to fall in love with her, while Firth is fine enough, even in such a misogynistic role), because otherwise it would fully drown under the weight of its own stereotypical pretentions. Girl saves man from his bitterness while also remaining firmly submissive to him and his superiority? Never seen that before! Man bosses a woman around and belittles her and suspects her, but realizes that only she can complete him with all her youthful sass? Never seen that before, either!
Actually, I lie: We’ve seen this plot before, too many times, and every time all it does is undermine the female experience. There is no chemistry between Firth and Stone—he always looks old enough to be her father—and the movie doesn’t go far enough into the questions it raises regarding faith vs. logic to actually make a resonant statement. It ends those conversations as bluntly as it handles the romance between its main characters, and by “bluntly” I mean “badly.” “Magic in the Moonlight” has all the trappings of a genially forgettable summer romance, but it’s too self-involved in its white-male-privilege point of view to be in any way pleasant.
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