Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Magic in the Moonlight: A cute little trick

Magic in the Moonlight (2014) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated PG-13, and much too harshly, for fleeting sexual candor

By Derrick Bang

Every year, like clockwork, Monarch butterflies return to Pacific Grove; Punxsutawney citizens await the arrival (or no-show) of their famed groundhog; surfers brave “the most dangerous waves in the world” during Half Moon Bay’s Mavericks Competition; and Woody Allen makes another movie.

Stanley (Colin Firth) doesn't believe in Sophie's (Emma Stone) claimed powers of
clairvoyance: not for a moment. But his debunking skills get nowhere with this charming
young American, and soon he begins to doubt: Could she be the completely genuine
spiritualist that the 1920s world has clamored to find?
The man is amazing; he hasn’t missed a year since 1981 ... and he compensated with two films in 1987.

An output that prodigious can’t help delivering mixed results, and even Allen’s staunchest fans will acknowledge that his crowd- and critic-pleasing smash hits — 2011’s Midnight in Paris being the most recent — are vastly outnumbered by quieter, smaller charmers (Scoop, To Rome with Love) and the occasional stinker (Anything Else).

Magic in the Moonlight belongs to the middle camp. It’s a modest little rom-com that feels like a mash-up of P.G. Wodehouse and Agatha Christie: a flapper-era bit of froth set in the south of France, replete with upper-class twits, social climbers and a central mystery that becomes more provocative by the minute.

Actually, Allen’s cheeky, dialogue-heavy script would make a marvelous play; aside from a few of cinematographer Darius Khondji’s luxurious overviews of the opulent Riviera, the action is confined to just a few locales that easily could be reproduced and/or conveyed on a theater stage. On top of which, the story’s second-act kicker would be a bravura delight, live and in person.

Not to mention how much more fun Allen’s razor-sharp verbal duels would be, delivered by actors declaiming mere yards in front of a rapt audience.

But I certainly don’t mean to downplay this project’s equally droll enticements on the big screen, many of which spring from the feisty banter between stars Colin Firth and Emma Stone.

Firth is all but unrecognized at first glimpse, in his “professional” persona as Chinese conjuror Wei Ling Soo, the most celebrated magician of his age. The film opens on a typical performance, highlighted by his famed vanishing elephant trick, and his eye-popping de-materialization from a closed sarcophagus to a chair, visible at all times, at the opposite end of the stage.

Off-stage, though, the magician strips off the robes and make-up to reveal Stanley Crawford, a grouchy, arrogant Englishman with the snooty, insulting manner of an aristocratic boor: a man with absolutely no friends — well, maybe one or two — and a cold-fish fiancée who seems to respect rather than love him.

Firth has a marvelous time with Stanley’s waspish put-downs and supercilious bearing; he’s so cheekily condescending that we can’t help admiring the man’s pompous elocution.

But Stanley’s stage act is just one facet of his career. Much like America’s Harry Houdini, he also relishes debunking the phony spiritualists who’ve become quite the rage in the 1920s, fleecing money from naïve, forlorn and wealthy socialites who pine for their absent loved ones. Nothing gives Stanley greater pleasure than exposing one of these predatory charlatans.

He therefore jumps at an offer from longtime colleague Howard Burkan (Simon McBurney), a fellow magician summoned by Caroline Catledge (Erica Leerhsen) to discredit Sophie Baker (Stone), an alluring American clairvoyant who has persuaded the widowed Grace Catledge (Jacki Weaver), Caroline’s mother, that she can speak with the spirit of her late husband.

Along the way, Sophie has won the heart of Caroline’s brother, Brice (Hamish Linklater), who now pledges true love and intends to marry her.

Trouble is, as Howard explains, he has failed to determine how Sophie has fooled everybody. It’s not merely a matter of spirit raps and candles levitating during séances; Sophie frequently gets “impressions” of personal details that she couldn’t possibly know by any rational means.

Poppycock, Stanley sniffs imperiously, promising to shame the little faker, and accepting this invitation to visit the Catledge’s Côte d’Azur mansion, clandestinely presenting himself as a businessman named Stanley Taplinger.

And Stanley’s in rare form from the moment he meets Sophie, contemptuously dismissing her every pronouncement, even as her uncannily accurate observations cut ever closer to the bone. Better still, the young woman gives as good as she gets, when it comes to tart ripostes; we’ve not heard rat-a-tat dialogue this deliciously piquant since the Golden Age of Hollywood screwball comedies.

Much worse, to Stanley’s vexation, he’s just as flummoxed as Howard. Eyebrows increasingly arched, Stanley not only can’t detect any fakery, but he’s astonished by Sophie’s uncanny knowledge of people, facts and incidents long kept private.

Could she — gasp? — be the real thing?

We can’t dismiss the possibility of a true supernatural influence, because Allen has dabbled in genuine magic before, most notably with the droll time-travel elements of Midnight in Paris. That makes this game that much more fun, as we share Stanley’s confusion and reluctant, worrisome fear that, well, perhaps his combatively rational view of the world isn’t as solid as supposed. After all, as his beloved Aunt Vanessa (Eileen Atkins) is quick to point out, some matters of the heart — such as love — may as well be magic, because of their refusal to obey logic or the inflexible certainties insisted upon by doctors and lawyers.

Firth’s descent into stammering indecision is almost more entertaining than his initially belligerent disdain.

Stone, in contrast, is utterly beguiling: a wide-eyed temptress who could be an ingénue struggling to make sense of an actual talent, or a swindler every bit as avaricious as her icy-cold mother (Marcia Gay Harden), who eagerly presses the impressionable dowager Catledge for a massive financial endowment that will establish a foundation where Sophie’s talents can be studied and taught (!) to willing students.

Harden, a chilly harridan with dollar signs in place of her eyes, further complicates the mystery: She’s so blatantly greedy that logic dictates her daughter’s equal guilt by association ... and yet Sophie lacks the taint of criminal skullduggery, which Stanley would expect to see.

The mystery itself is tantalizing, the witty banter between Stanley and Sophie an increasing delight. Several of the sidebar characters are equally entertaining, most particularly Linklater’s hilariously foppish Brice: a ridiculously useless Bertie Wooster wannabe who makes that Wodehouse character look positively brilliant by comparison.

Atkins’ Aunt Vanessa is the voice of wisdom: a loving constant who dotes on her nephew, despite his numerous failings, while wishing that he could lighten up at least a little bit. Aunt Vanessa has a talent for cutting to the core of things, and Atkins makes her warm, serene and persuasively astute.

Costume designer Sonia Grande has a great time with the period wardrobes, which also contribute subtly to characterization. The story’s “believers” are clothed in pastels and white ice-cream suits, while Stanley and the “skeptics” generally are seen in darker colors. And Grande excels herself with Sophie’s many outfits, whether the cute red skirt, white blouse and dark beret she wears during an early encounter with Stanley, or the delectable, flapper-esque finery she sports during a gala ball.

Stone, to her credit, looks every inch the 1920s ex-pat American, with not a 21st affectation to be seen. How could anybody resist her?

Allen builds his narrative to a clever finale, with an equally endearing epilogue. All this said, Magic in the Moonlight most likely will appeal only to those who delight in the wordplay and exaggerated characters that populate Wodehouse and Gilbert & Sullivan, where very minor incidents are blown into contrived dilemmas of epic proportions. This is a mannered, rarefied genre likely to be viewed as dull and talky by viewers with mainstream tastes.

An indictment those same folks likely would make about many of Allen’s films. More’s the pity.

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