A touch of Hollywood romance in Woody Allen’s new Magic in the Moonlight

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[Donald appreciates the new Woody Allen movie, a May-December romantic comedy firmly in the Hollywood tradition. — the artblog editorsA

Woody Allen’s “Magic In the Moonlight” is an old-fashioned romantic comedy set on the French Riviera in 1928 with two sleight-of-hand artists – Stanley, the magician, and Sophie, the psychic – two “commoners” circling each other warily amidst their sponsors and friends, the idle rich.

Engaging screen presence of Colin Firth and Emma Stone

Stanley Crawford (Colin Firth), a veteran magician who is determined to reveal psychic medium Sophie Baker (Emma Stone) as a phony, is as irascible and snobbish as Henry Higgins of Pygmalion and My Fair Lady, but Crawford is much more likeable thanks to Allen’s witty writing and Firth’s engaging screen presence.

Photo courtesy of Jack English
Photo courtesy of Jack English

As for Stone, she gives Jennifer Lawrence a run for her money as the most promising young actress in Hollywood. This film gives Stone a chance to show off her comedic chops that she has strengthened in past films such as “Superbad” and “Easy A”.

Shot on location in the south of France, the story pits a mature, world-weary character against an ingénue of seemingly equal talent yet far less world-weariness. Stanley doesn’t really believe in what he preaches. He openly acknowledges to his audience that what he does is creative trickery and that there are no spiritual beings beyond the physical world.

Tension between a believer and a non-believer

Traveling around that physical world and colliding with Stanley’s is the young and delightful Sophie who showcases her abilities as a medium and seems to amaze everyone.  Sophie seems to be a “believer” in the spirit world, to Stanley’s “non-believer,” and this sets up a tension between the two that becomes the waltz into the inevitable romance.  There is a tension between them due to the believer/non-believer difference. The tension between the two main characters plays as a classic rom-com plot device used repeatedly in movies through the 20s, 30s and beyond. Some would call this device “tired” but since this movie is a throwback to movies of the 20s and 30s, each movement in the plot feels like a natural progression.

Photo courtesy of Jack English
Photo courtesy of Jack English

Sophie, as a character, is totally different than the phony bologna Oda Mae Brown (Whoopi Goldberg) in 1990’s “Ghost.” Of course Oda Mae was comic relief in that movie and not its romantic lead, and here, Allen treats the pretty young psychic with all the dignity accorded the lead actress in a romantic comedy.

Of course Stanley is secretly amazed but is also threatened and suspicious of this young woman’s impossible talent as she communicates with the dead.

1920’s swing music and some great music War Horses

Because this is the cool 1920s, before the Stock Market Crash and World Wide Depression, the film‘s audio contains lots of the upbeat swing music of the era. Brice Catledge(Hamish Linklater), a rich playboy infatuated with Sophie, serenades her by singing two American songbook standards while playing a ukulele. His wooing with the two classics — Harry Caroll’s “I’m Always Chasing Rainbows” and Jerome Kern’s “Who?” (One of my all-time favorite standards) – seems pathetic as he declares his love and marriage desires for Sophie upon first meeting her when she clearly has no interest in him.

And there’s a notable use of non-period music in the scene of Stanley’s lavish magic show.  The stirring beat of two music War Horses — Igor Stravinsky’s  “The Rite of Spring” (1913) and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 (1824) — dramatize the amazing magic tricks. These are pieces that are guaranteed to get a reaction out of an audience, especially when paired with popcorn entertainment. One could argue that Allen is mocking Stanley by comparing him with these two musical geniuses.  But maybe the director, himself a musician, is rather saying that music is great magic.

The romantic pairing of Colin Firth (Oscar-winner for “The King Speech”) and Emma Stone shows a notable age difference between the two, comparable to Fred Astaire’s far-younger co-stars, Ginger Rogers, Judy Garland, and Audrey Hepburn.  The use of the May-September romance is solidly in Allen’s canon as well, in pictures like Hannah and her Sisters, in which two far-older men vie for the love of a young woman.

In a long line of Woody Allen romantic comedies

Photo courtesy of Jack English
Photo courtesy of Jack English

Through the years the romantic comedy film genre has taken a nosedive since “It Happened One Night (1934) and “The Philadelphia Story” (1940) set the bar high. “Magic In the Moonlight” manages to pay homage to the ‘romp’ during the Golden Age of Hollywood without being artificial or cheesy.  This is not the first of Allen’s movies to be classified a romantic comedy. He won Best Picture and Best Director for Annie Hall (1977), considered not only a great romantic comedy but among the greatest comedies of any era.

This film follows the 78-year old Allen’s Academy-Award winning “Midnight In Paris” and “Blue Jasmine,” and the lesson seems to be that science and factual evidence will get you only so far, and that there are other possibilities beyond what meets the eye.

“Magic In the Moonlight” is playing at the Bryn Mawr Film Institute and Ritz Five. 

 

Tags

bryn mawr film institute, magic in the moonlight, ritz five, Woody Allen

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