NOTHING UP HIS SLEEVE: My take on the Woody Allen film Magic in the Moonlight

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God is dead, Nietzsche; Nietzsche is dead, God.
         Bathroom Graffiti


Woody Allen, almost a national treasure now as far as I’m concerned, has always been something of a clever parodist.
He can imitate anything, both seriously and satirically, from Bergman (Love & Death, Interiors and Husbands and Wives amongst a ton of others) to Fellini (Stardust Memories) to Kafka and Bertolt Brecht (Shadows and Fog) to documentaries (Take the Money and Run and Zelig) to almost anything else.
Now we have a new set of authors that Allen has mined for a movie. His latest foray into cinematic creativity, Magic in the Moonlight, a story about a magician trying to prove that a psychic is a fraud in the 1920’s south of France, is basically Noel Coward and Somerset Maughm with a lead character that is straight out of Shaw’s Pygmalion as if written by Nietzsche.


Okay, I get it, that’s a bit too many references, you might say. But that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.


Too bad, then, that the movie doesn’t really work.


However, at the same time, strangely enough, and on the positive side, it often works better than most films do that do work (or it does do that voodoo that films do so well—a joke that makes more sense once you see the movie).


After all, there is a lot to like here. It’s charming, has some wonderful verbal ping pong between characters, is moving at times, and in a light sort of way tries to have a really heavy conversation about the meaning of life, or, since this is a Woody Allen film, the lack thereof.


This last is especially true. Allen is very clear about what he thinks about the universe and why we are here (as in, there is no…). He and his characters lay it all out on the table and are quite forthright. The universe is cold and rational in a machine like way, devoid of meaning, and of anything that hints of the irrational, like God.


Well, not exactly. Allen and his characters can rant and rave against the heartlessness of the universe all they want (except that it can’t be heartless since it doesn’t have a heart), but in the end, there is one area where they take an existential leap of faith and accept an aspect of being that makes no sense whatsoever, and that is in the actuality of the most irrational of human emotions: love.


Allen doesn’t try to justify it. He doesn’t even make an argument for it. He just accepts it, finding it the only way to survive this nightmare we call being on a distant, unfeeling, indifferent rock floating in the middle of nowhere.


Colin Firth, an actor whose cache has suddenly and dynamically increased lately after two Academy Award nominations (and one win, let us not forget), plays Stanley, a magician who disguises himself in what was called “yellow face” at the time, though here the movie manages to pull it off with so far nobody reportedly being offended.


No one knows who the magician really is except for a select few, like old school chum and fellow prestidigitator Howard Burkan (Simon McBurney, the extremely metrosexual husband in Friends with Money), though at the same time, Stanley doesn’t really work very hard at keeping it a secret either.


Burkan comes to Stanley with a problem. There is a psychic who has wormed her way into a wealthy family and Burkan needs her stopped before she marries the son and cons the family out of a lot of money to start a school of psychic research. But Burkan can’t figure out how she does it. Can Stanley?


And thus we are set for what is in many ways, a very 1930’s romantic comedy.


The strengths of the movie is an often extremely witty screenplay by Allen and a strong performance by Firth who wears his role like a comfortable white tweed suit (it has to be white, it’s after Memorial Day). The two make a masterful couple, as if they’ve been married for years, and the chemistry between the two is palpable.


However, such chemistry is not as apparent between Firth and Emma Stone, who plays the perky, tomboyish psychic Sophie. The problem is twofold. First, Stone just seems so modern and out of place in a 1920’s drawing room comedy. And though I can’t say there is absolutely no connection between the two stars, the sparks they generate just aren’t quite strong enough to pull the whole thing off.


The screenplay is also a bit awkward at times. Though there are some marvelous moments, such as Stanley’s Aunt Vanessa (Eillen Atkins, a grand dame of British stage, TV and screen) slyly talking Stanley into realizing he’s in love with Sophie while convincing him he’s not as she calmly plays solitaire (the description makes more sense if you see the movie).


But other moments never really convince. And the reason they don’t is so obvious, you do wonder exactly what Allen was thinking.


This is especially true of a scene after Stanley has gone through his spiritual conversion, completely fooled by Sophie, and has seemed to fallen in love not just with her world view, but with her. At this point, he has a clever, Shavian conversation about how Sophie, while not unattractive, is hardly a compelling or great beauty. This is a terrible place for this back and forth and clearly should have been the second or probably third conversation the two characters had, something Stanley says when he suspects he might have feelings for the fake.


Because of this, their growing love comes to a stop just at the moment that it should be increasing by leaps and bounds. It simply makes no sense.


The same goes for Stanley’s “conversion” scene, where he buys into Sophie’s abilities. This falls flat because the basis of his belief is Sophie’s revelation of secrets the Aunt has rather than a secret Stanly has.


The same for Stanley’s “reversion” scene, where he realizes just how the con is done. It comes out of nowhere and has no compelling reason. It just happens.


This also leads to issues with the ending. Though it’s not hard to figure out how Sophie does it (I mean, once you understand that there is no way Allen is going to side with magic any more than Ingmar Bergman would in his film The Magician, it’s only a matter of working backward to figure out who could possibly feed Sophie all the information she has), once Stanley reveals it, it causes plot issues that again, don’t make a lot of sense.


Stanley is actually very forgiving to the people who conned him, even though he has made a serious fool of himself in national press; I never bought this turn the other cheek response (the only part of the religious view of life he doesn’t seem to reject for some odd reason).


Even more puzzling is that Sophie ends up engaged to the rich young man (Hamlish Linklater of The Newsroom and The New Adventures of the New Christine) that she was trying to con with no explanation as to why he would want someone who has used him and his family so untowardly.


And because of all of this, the through line of Stanley and Sophie never quite works.


At the same time, somehow, and so very improbably, the show does leave you with a nice, warm glow. It’s so imperfect, but also so enjoyable and entertaining. There’s probably no logical reason for it (which would probably drive Stanley up the wall), but the story is effective in spite of its many faults.


I’d say it’s a sort of miracle if that wouldn’t be just a tad too ironic in this context.


With Jackie Weaver in her kewpie doll best as the victim of a fake séance; Marcia Gay Harden as Sophie’s dour mother; and keep a look out for legendary cabaret singer Ute Lemper in the role of, appropriately enough, cabaret singer.


  1. Dialog like that found in the solitaire scene is what makes this film a joy to watch. The dialog when times comes across like they are channeling Sorkin is wonderful. Firth despite the large age gap is fantastic except when it looks like he’s channeling Allen and he comes across as a cheap impersonation. As much as I enjoyed most of the movie I find it hard to recommend. Go see One Hundred Foot Journey instead-sweet movie with a some delicious cinematography and all round excellent acting.

      • It wasn’t Firth that I was complaining about. Take the broken car scene. First he can’t fix it, Then he declares the sky clear though dark clouds are everywhere, Then he can’t put up the top. The whole scene took me back to the Annie Hall lobster scene. I saw Woody Allen and not the Firth character and it wasn’t hilarious high jinx-just sad.There was another one but I can’t recall it any more.

  2. Great review and every word in it is true. But, I would definitely recommend this movie wholeheartedly despite the missteps you uncovered in the script.

    Allen has been writing near great scripts for almost fifty years. His work is frequently imperfect, true, but who can write a perfect script year after year? Shakespeare couldn’t do it either. There’s so much to learn from Allen’s screenplays about structure, mood, and how to move an audience, even if you don’t personally fall in love with the movie.

    To paraphrase your opening, Allen’s body of work is an international treasure which will outlive the works of 99% of his contemporaries. That’s all I ask from a screenwriter.

    • Thanks for responding. I agree. I think people are harshing on Woody Allen because he’s not as brilliant as he once was (sometimes from people who haven’t really seen that many Allen films in the first place). His films since 2001 (when he started making movies outside the U.S.) may not have reached the levels of Annie Hall (the closest being Vicki Christina Barcelona), but they have vastly improved from his movies in the 1990’s. And he’s more than earned the right not to hit a homer with every film. As you said, even many of these later films will be remembered far longer than many of his contemporaries.

So tell me what you think.

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