Review of Magic in the Moonlight, Directed by Woody Allen
Woody Allen’s latest film Magic in the Moonlight comes right on the heels of Blue Jasmine, and is of much-lighter fare. The romantic comedy features a world-renowned magician determined to unmask a psychic who is swindling a rich widow of her money and bagging her son in the process. The witty lines, charming characters, and quirky plot make the film a surprising delight, while asking significant questions about the spiritual world.
The year is 1928 and Stanley Crawford (Colin Firth) is performing his headline-making illusions under his “Chinese” pseudonym Wei Ling Soo. As soon as he’s backstage, we immediately see that Stanley is not someone who’s much fun to hang out with–he’s grouchy, demanding, and tactless. An old friend and rival magician Howard Burkan (Simon McBurney) finds his way to Stanley’s dressing room and tells him that he’s found the real deal. Howard has found real magic. And it resides in southern France in the fortune-telling mind of an American girl from Kalamazoo named Sophie Baker (Emma Stone). Howard attended Sophie’s seances and, finding no trickery, decides that Stanley may be a better detective.
The famous illusionist Stanley is a militant, Nietzche-loving, cynical, nihilistic, atheistic British materialist, who spends his spare time debunking spiritualists, mediums, and other frauds. He’s a dark pessimist convinced that those who believe in magic are complete idiots. Most magicians enjoy holding the reality of others in suspense, but Stanley exudes contempt for his own audience.
His life’s creed is Reason and Science. This worldview, however, makes Stanley a dour boy with little flare for life. He compares the seance table to the Vatican. Those who are “desperate for hope” will “believe anything.” Stanley imagines himself being good friends with Thomas Hobbes, finding “nasty, brutish, and short” to be the perfect adjectives for the human life. The fact is, “Happiness is not the natural human condition.” Ever the nihilist, he says, “The only superpower shows up in black robes.” In sum, “I’m a rational man living in a rational world.”
The supernaturally-gifted Sophie is a spritely young woman who receives “mental vibrations” that tell her things about those around her that no one could know. The first moment they meet and their worldviews clash, Sophie stuns Stanley by sharing a “vibration” that he’s from the orient. Much of the magic in Magic in the Moonlight derives from the fabulous verbal sparring between the two protagonists. Making a stop at a lookout over southern France’s stunning coast, Sophie gasps, “This is so beautiful.” Stanley retorts, “It’s transient.”
As an intellectual and romantic relationship buds between the believer and nonbeliever, the ending looms large. Will Allen reveal Sophie to be a charlatan and Stanley triumph? Or might there really be something more?
Without revealing the finale, Magic in the Moonlight blatantly puts the accusations of the Enlightenment against religion in juxtaposition with transcendental philosophy of the Romantic era. Stanley unabashedly charges those claiming to be “spiritual” as finding comfort in a lie to help them get by. Allen may not give much due to the other side of the argument other than perhaps “we need illusions to help us get by,” but Stanley’s joyless life almost stands as an argument against his own reasoning in a reductio ad absurdum way.
In the end, Allen’s view of the spiritual is more Romanticist than religious–love is the crowning jewel of the life truly lived. Yet the happy conclusion of Magic in the Moonlight has a flimsy shallowness to it once the credits roll. Human love doesn’t last. In the words of Horatius Bonar, “My love is oft times low, my joy still ebs and flows”–the naive enchantment Allen weaves only lasts as far as the next tragedy–”but peace with Him remains the same, no change Jehovah knows.”
While Magic in the Moonlight tries to pit religion and science against one another in picturesque southern France, it more accurately captures the zeitgeist of this pluralist “spiritual” era; the antidote of love is the panacea for our modern age. The Christian can agree, but how we define love defines us.