‘Magic in the Moonlight’
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By Don Gibble  August 22, 2014 12:00 am

Last year I gave Woody Allen’s “Blue Jasmine” 5 out of 5 stars, and it was one of my favorite movies of the year. This new Woody Allen movie is so bad I really think he stole the script from a college freshman. It is really bad. From the 1920’s French setting to the dreamily romantic title, this feels like a pale attempt to recapture a portion of the public that made “Midnight in Paris” by far Allen’s biggest hit ever. There’s a reason the film didn’t premiere at Cannes last May, just down the road from where it was shot.

Set in an F. Scott Fitzgerald-esque Cote d’Azur populated by rich Brits and Yanks, this story of an imperious maestro’s plan to cut off an alluring arriviste at the knees could have been filmed in 1935 by George Cukor, Frank Borzage or Gregory La Cava, starred John Barrymore and Carole Lombard and probably would have been the better for it. It certainly would have more comfortably fit the Depression-era zeitgeist, as well as the public’s ready acceptance of fluffy, patently absurd comic premises.

 There’s the strangely uneasy shadow of “Pygmalion” hanging over “Magic in the Moonlight.” Colin Firth’s Stanley Crawford, Europe’s most celebrated magician, who secretly performs in the guise of a Chinese conjuror, is just as arrogant, domineering and ultimately susceptible as Henry Higgins. But he simultaneously enacts the role of Higgins’ nemesis, Karpathy, in his determination to unmask the young woman as a fraud. His high-handed, bombastic nature, combined with a nasty destructive streak, makes Stanley rather unpleasant company altogether.

Stanley is lured to the Riviera by old pal and fellow magician Howard, whose friends are currently hosting the red-haired, blue-eyed Sophie Baker (Emma Stone), a young American woman of supposedly unerring clairvoyant powers. Posing as a businessman, Stanley accepts the lavish hospitality of gullible matron Grace Catledge, who is keen to reconnect with her late husband via séances conducted by Sophie.

It’s taken all of three seconds for Grace’s presumptuous son Brice to decide he will marry Sophie. But while idle, rich Brice serenades the low-born Sophie with insipid ditties on the ukulele, Stanley marvels as the young woman reveals astonishing powers of insight and deduction that chip away at his malignant desire to prove her a fake. Driving with her along the dirt roads lining the coast and, in one scene sheltering her from the rain in the magnificent, 127-year-old Nice Observatory, Stanley begins to fall for Sophie.

    The characters are one-dimensional and are ones you’d want to avoid rather than spend a holiday with. In most Allen films, such as his last, “Blue Jasmine,” any number of supporting roles linger in the mind. Such is not the case here, as Sophie’s mother, for example, Marcia Gay Harden has absolutely nothing to do. With Firth looking uncomfortable most of the time, as if unable to settle upon the precise level of disdain to express while still engaging the audience, it’s up to Stone to save the day. She does what she can. Her giant eyes suggesting the possibility that she really can see more than ordinary mortals do, Stone is lively and hard to read.  It’s sad when you don’t care how the movie ends. Really sad. Avoid this movie even though you are a Woody Allen fan like I am.

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