Saturday, December 13, 2014

Magic in The Moonlight (2014)

Magic in the Moonlight movie review
Photo Credit: Magic in the Moonlight / Sony Pictures Classics
Skeptic Englishman Stanley Crawford (Colin Firth) is the world's greatest illusionist; known for his transcendent work on stage as Chinese conjurer Wei Ling Soo. He knows all the tricks of this world and the afterlife - which he is convinced doesn't exist.  A young, alluring American clairvoyant Sophie Baker (Emma Stone) and her mother have charmed their way into the heart of a rich matriarch wishing to make contact with her late husband. When a lifelong friend of Crawford offers an opportunity to debunk her talent, Crawford is eager to expose her as a fraud.

Magic in the Moonlight is so easy to fall in love with at first glance. Crawford's dalliance and a stern refusal of optimism or any suspension of disbelief is so palpable, it's easy to be disarmed that there is always a master pulling the puppet strings of life. Baker's charm and magnetism allow us and Crawford to fall head over heels for her powers while simultaneously guessing if she is for real. Portrayed by Firth and Stone, they deliver a blossoming friendship that challenges each other's beliefs and grows into something more.

Their character's relationship is so much like the process of film-making and what a movie needs to be believable. Like the magician who rehearses his tricks to perfection, the director must successfully emote what is on the page into a production that is believable and successful. On the part of the audience, it takes a fair bit of open-mindedness to accept the invitation to fully escape from their own lives and follow the story that lies ahead. The exceptional cast, whimsical production, dreamy setting of 1930s France, and drool-worthy costumes makes it hard not to feel yourself swooning.

Director Woody Allen's earlier work centered on relationships & life in Manhattan is a favorite among film fans more than his recent movies - though I'm not so conflicted about his study of love, lies, nostalgia, and deception by dipping into the past and jaunting to dreamy European destinations. From his recent filmography of the past few years, Midnight in Paris is one of my favorites of all time. Whimsical, light-hearted, and wonderfully cathartic, the cast and production weave a story about a Hollywood writer who escapes the present moment by indulging into the 1920s. Bringing back his love of France, history, and the idea of rationality versus fantasy, Magic in the Moonlight could've been a repeat successful story if it didn't seem so rushed.

Even though the effort of production and the intention of fantasy must condense together smoothly to pull off, the work behind the magic becomes more obvious than it should.  As believable Firth is as the ultimate skeptic turned believer, at times he looks out of place and lost in terms of fitting into a scene. Stone becomes the more majestic character and presence turning in an intoxicating and charming performance. Primarily, Crawford's defiance of seeing is knowing, and vice versa gradually loses its luster towards the third act, where the script seems to drag itself to the finish line rather than leaving us on an ethereal note. Some of the technicalities blow off the spells that is transfixing and entertaining.

On the note of the age difference between Firth and Stone, and the possibility of a brewing romance between them, there isn't anything to write home about. Their chemistry is light-hearted and doesn't detract from the story. What undermines the movie moreso than the debate of the leading stars' ages is how their relationship loses its ease; sometime it feels like Crawford is talking himself into a relationship rather than letting his feelings form naturally. This is not the prized way - at least in my eyes - of winning any woman's affection. But, this is a Hollywood fantasy after all.

The questions that kept presenting itself to me though was: does a movie really have to blow our socks off in order to be considered worth our time? Can we like something that is imperfect, and not brilliant, and not consider it a guilty pleasure, but just a movie with faults that we do still really like?  Reason versus love is how I'd describe my affair with Magic in the Moonlight. I felt I should really dislike this movie because so many other reviewers did, even with agreed acknowledgement of the pros and cons. With the awareness of knowing the movie's shortcomings, I wondered in the grand scheme of how we bloggers and reviewers rate films, if it was still okay to like something that isn't mind-blowing, and sorta rested on simple, brief examinations of two character's beliefs that didn't try to wow us with epiphanies or emotional catharsis.

The latest film by Allen is not perfect. It's third act and script could of have used more polishing. What is redeeming about the movie is that the stars are worth their weight in gold. Firth pushes us to believe the universe and its grandeur is a menacing machine of hard work and tears, while Stone enchants us to dip our feet into the unknown. Even if somewhere along the way, the idea of the story falls a bit short, it's enjoyable for the most parts. Magic in the Moonlight could've used a bigger leap of faith into the unknown instead of clinging to the cliffs of logic.

Rating: ★★☆
Have you seen Magic in the Moonlight? What did you think?

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