When the heart rules the head, disaster follows.
Comparing love to magic isn’t exactly a unique idea, but it’s easy to see the truth in it. It does seem miraculous how you can be reduced to a stammering mess, how clear thinking can become muddled by the smell of another person’s cologne or the flash of a mischievous smile, how your courage disappears when it’s confronted with a face patiently waiting to hear how you feel about the person it belongs to.
But if you look at the trick for long enough, it’s easy for the wonder to vanish. You become so comfortable with the other person that the glossy, shiny pages of your story together start to look wrinkled and dog-eared. You see the person’s flaws so clearly that you wonder how you could have ignored them for so long. Probably one of you has farted in front of the other without bothering to cover it with a cough.
And when we reach that point, it’s also easy to believe that we never loved the other person in the first place. Because we love feeling the magic, and when it’s gone, we start to wonder if it was ever really there at all. And maybe we might start looking for a new source of magic, starting the whole delightful cycle all over again.
Woody Allen’s Magic in the Moonlight stars Colin Firth as Stanley, a world-renowned but crotchety illusionist, and Emma Stone as Sophie, a dreamy-eyed medium seemingly focused on bettering the world around her.
After one of his performances as the legendary (not to mention racist caricature) Wei Ling Soo, Stanley is approached by Howard Burkan, another illusionist and an old friend of his. Burkan tells Stanley that he’s been staying with the Catledge family, who are also playing host to a young medium. Burkan went there to discredit her, but having found no such evidence, he wants to bring Stanley into the game.
Stanley agrees and takes on Sophie head-on. But much to his bewilderment, the charming Sophie shows no evidence of fakery — and quite a bit of interest in him. Although he’s engaged to be married, Stanley finds himself drawn in by her alluring persona and overflowing optimism about both this world and the next, to the point where his rational mind turns to prayer after his aunt is involved in a terrible car accident.
That’s also the turning point, where Stanley does a 180 back to his cynical self and determines that Sophie absolutely must be a fake for no other reason than pure stubbornness. It turns out that Burkan unmasked Sophie very quickly when he first arrived, but he kept it to himself as long as Sophie played along to reveal Stanley’s inner optimist.
Sophie apologizes, and although Stanley refuses to forgive her, he breaks off his engagement and proposes to Sophie instead. Unfortunately, she’s already agreed to marry the Catledge heir by that point. Stanley returns to his aunt’s house, broken and alone, and eventually willing to accept any sign from Sophie that she could marry him after all. She knocks on the door, and they presumably live happily ever after.
Except I don’t buy a single second of their supposed love story. Stanley is a man of science and reason — a fact that’s hammered into the viewer’s head about a thousand times — and yet he calls off his engagement to a perfectly lovely woman for the sake of these newfound feelings for a woman who’s completely duped him.
I know that’s supposed to be the whole charm of the movie, that a man ruled by his head was swayed by his heart, but I’m just not seeing it in the way the story unfolded. Yes, Stanley is beautifully optimistic for the first two-thirds of the movie. But once he realizes Sophie is not in fact a medium, his entire worldview reverts to what it was, with extra spite thrown in for good measure.
Stanley is not a man who takes lightly to being made a fool. After calling a press conference to tell the entire world what a marvel Sophie was, and for a man who values his reputation so highly, it rings false for him to suddenly forgive her on the basis of strange emotions he can’t explain — particularly when it involves breaking his engagement to the woman who was supposed to be “a match made in heaven.”
After everything that transpired in the movie, I don’t think Stanley is the type of man to just forgive and forget. Sure, maybe he and Sophie could get together. But I don’t foresee her being happy with him, as Stanley argued she would be, and I don’t think their relationship can last.
It’s not because Stanley is a grade-A jerk, and it’s not even a matter of them being two completely different people, because I know opposites attract and all that. It’s the fact that their relationship is built on a lie that jeopardized Stanley’s life-defining career, tarnished his sterling-silver reputation as a debunker of mediums, and caused him to have real emotions that warred so strongly with his iron brain.
But even all those things could have been dealt with if it weren’t for the fact that Stanley allowed himself to hope and found himself brutally crushed. And that’s why I think he reverts back to reason so sharply, without a glance back over his shoulder at the shining optimism he leaves behind, because he can’t cope with the fact that these things he was finally able to dream about turned out to be a lie. Is that any kind of foundation to build a relationship on?
Flawed love story aside, I found the rest of the film to be stilted and self-indulgent. Everybody’s extraordinarily wealthy — at least, they must be wealthy if Sophie’s the only one who needs to worry about money — and spends most of their time lounging around, smoking cigarettes, driving vintage cars, playing the ukulele, and having philosophical conversations about life, the universe, and everything.
They’re also incredibly self-absorbed; after Stanley’s aunt gets out of surgery, everyone professes to have been extremely worried and wanting to know every detail, but not ten seconds later the conversation concludes with “all’s well that ends well” and everyone retires to the garden. I mean, I know it’s a period piece and people were probably quite selfish while on holiday, but holy damn.
And for all that Woody Allen is supposed to be this genius of a writer, his exposition and character development were definitely not up to par. One of his characters is a psychologist who actually monologues about his interpretation of Stanley, because how else could we possibly find out that Stanley’s parents were distant, that he’s closest with his aunt, and that he values reason above all else? Because goodness knows you can’t possibly show these things.
There were also several twists the script could’ve taken that it placidly drove by instead. For example, Emma Stone could’ve been an ice-cold manipulator who enjoys screwing with people by “communicating” with dead relatives in an attempt to land a rich husband, only for her icy heard to thaw for the less-wealthy magician and give up her life of crime for love. Instead she really is just a small-town girl who got caught in a lie and went along with a more influential man’s scheme. What kind of character is that?
But I think the thing that bugged me the most was how close Stanley and his fiancée seemed to be at the start of the film. They were supposed to go on a trip together, and even if Stanley wanted to get out of it, he was still very affectionate toward her. So I don’t really understand how he’s so easily swayed into loving Sophie and into believing that he never loved his fiancée at all.
I’m sure there are lots of people who rave that Magic in the Moonlight is some kind of visionary piece, as they do with all of Woody Allen’s movies. But to me, it was a story that focused more on “religion can’t be real” than the love story or proper character development, it was decidedly lacking in any kind of magic, and it was a long hour and a half.
Final Grade: C-
- For all that the movie is called Magic in the Moonlight, there’s very little talk of the moon or stars or anything. It’s just a lame reference to the usual “is there something bigger than us out there?” without any real attempt to uncover anything new.
- Emma Stone in red lipstick, you guys. Like jeez.
- It was really hard to keep from slamming my head into the wall when Stanley was trying to get through his “I’m being really magnanimous right now in forgiving you, and also I’ll do you the favour of marrying you” speech, when he couldn’t understand why on earth Sophie would reject him, and when he tried to convince her that it was a big deal for a genius like him to want her at all. I’m pretty sure Stanley deserved to stay single and have a very pragmatic evening in the moonlight all by himself. That is all.