Pleasant 'Moonlight' doesn't quite match Allen's previous heights

Sony Pictures

By Jacob Rich, Daily Arts Writer
Published August 29, 2014

I have seen far worse Woody Allen films than “Magic in the Moonlight.” It’s a charming 1920s period piece, a comfort dessert to be served after 2013’s more daring main course, “Blue Jasmine.” The film revolves around Stanley (Colin Firth, “The King’s Speech”), an acclaimed stage magician, well known for his skepticism and knack for exposing frauds claiming to have legitimate mystical powers. Think of him as an old-school amalgamation of Stephen Fry and Penn Jillette. He is recruited to investigate the legitimacy of a charming young divinator Sophie (Emma Stone, “The Amazing Spider-Man 2”), who through exhibiting her “psychic” abilities is attempting to root herself among a clan of American aristocrats living in the French Riviera.

Magic in the Moonlight

Sony Pictures Classics
State Theater and Rave

Given their age difference, Firth and Stone may seem like an odd pair for a romantic comedy, but their combined talent and charisma obliterate any potential awkwardness. Firth, one of the greatest living actors, turns a rather cold part into a fascinating character study. Stone manages to keep up, making this her greatest romantic role yet. Her character’s frequent visions and predictions are at once charming and hilarious. Stone has clearly studied classic vaudevillian magic shows; she nails the aloof demeanor, somehow acting as though she is always in two dimensions at once.

If you are familiar with Woody Allen movies by now, this one won’t be earth-shattering for you. It plays mostly on familiar themes found in his previous films. The central motif of belief vs. skepticism has played a part in many Allen dramas, but most notably in 1986’s “Hannah and Her Sisters,” where Allen’s character hops between religious institutions in an attempt to find a higher meaning to life than what can be seen. Stanley’s struggle is similar. Sophie’s divination seems almost legitimate — should he give in and cast aside his skepticism, embracing a more magical world? Or should he investigate her powers further? The divination device is merely a microcosm of these more complex themes, which is interesting, but this would be more effective if said themes weren’t as played out in Allen’s previous work.

That’s not to say it isn’t enjoyable to revisit some tropes. Ever since the obnoxious film buff in “Annie Hall,” one of Allen’s favorite character tropes has been the “punching bag,” the obnoxious, usually pseudo-intelligent character who the protagonist is forced to endure. Of all the iterations of these provincial putzes (see: Alan Alda in “Crimes and Misdemeanors,” Michael Sheen in “Midnight in Paris”), “Moonlight”’s Brice (Hamish Linklater, CBS’s “The Crazy Ones”) is among the greatest. The 1920’s equivalent of a trust fund kid, Brice fancies himself a Prince Charming, and his ukulele-strumming, world-promising attempted wooing of Sophie was one of the film’s comedic highlights.

Surprisingly, however, “Moonlight”’s script lacks a bit of the snappiness Allen’s films are known for. Many characters, especially Firth’s, have a tendency to tell rather than show. There were a few instances of lazy Scooby-Doo-esque transitional dialogue: exclamations in the vein of “I’ll figure this case out, yet!” While unfortunately noticeable, these instances don’t take too much away from the overall pleasant, funny screenplay.

And while Allen’s dialogue remains fairly staid, his cinematographer Darius Khondji has implemented a decidedly fresh look with this film’s visuals. Gone are the days in which Allen stubbornly replicated the dark visual style of his collaborations with acclaimed “Godfather” cinematographer Gordon Willis. “Moonlight” has Allen’s characters imbued with a rich, saturated light, giving the film a more sensational appearance in contrast to the stark humanism of films past.

“Moonlight” has just enough humor and intrigue to keep you entertained for its appropriate 97-minute runtime. Exuding charm over creativity, it won’t be remembered as one of Allen’s greats. It will instead be remembered as a very pleasant afternoon.