This is a review of the movie Magic in the Moonlight (2014)
This COULD have been a much better movie, easily.
(Note: This review is a TOTAL SPOILER; I'm assuming you either have already seen the movie and want to know whether you agree with me, or you don't care to avoid spoilers.)
It's 1928. The Roaring Twenties. Stanley (Colin Firth) is an illusionist and a misanthrope, jaded and cynical as the stereotype demands. His show is spectacular, and the closing performance shows him magically appearing and turning toward the audience in what was shown to be an empty chair. Neat trick! But he's a perfectionist; we watch him angrily snap at everyone behind the curtains for failing to meet his demands. Not a likable guy.
His peer, Howard (Simon McBurney), drops in to invite him to help discredit a mystic who may be taking advantage of a rich American family living in Côte d'Azur. Time for the Golden Age of Travel!
The scenery is crazy beautiful, and the plot has a nice setup. We all know Stanley is probably going to fall for Sophie, and Howard is just the hand-wringer to put them together and then get out of the way. We just don't know how, yet.
As we suspected, the mystic turns out to be lovely Sophie (Emma Stone), who immediately starts toying with Stanley's skepticism, despite his effort to disguise his true identity and purpose behind a thinly veiled masquerade that he is an international tradesman, a friend of the family. It's VERY thin -- Howard, supposedly a professional illusionist and master of deception, can't even remember the false last name Stanley created for himself.
I'm intrigued and invested. Sure, Stanley is a curmudgeon, but he's like Carl from the movie Up. You want to have your heart melt watching him learn to love and be loved.
At a séance, there are the usual parlor tricks, but when a candle levitates, an astonished Howard grasps it out of the air, proclaiming to Stanley that there were no strings, etc., Stanley is left a little perturbed. Howard would know if it were a trick, right?
Sophie unmasks Stanley quickly, and he throws caution to the wind. He decides the best test for her is to see how well she can divine the secrets of his Aunt Vanessa (Eileen Atkins), a woman Sophie could never have known any details in advance. He drives her there, and Sophie astounds Stanley by telling, in great detail, the story of a secret, forbidden love his Aunt Vanessa once had.
Stanley is convinced that she is the real deal. She proves the existence of the afterlife, and magic as a reality. His soul is lifted and his spirits are enlightened -- he feels joy that he has not known since he was a child. He is truly a transformed man. He realizes that his former life's pursuit had only been a way to grapple with the inevitable pain and heartbreak of life. Now he has hope and meaning to his life.
Now we are in a fun place, for movie plots. Is she the real deal? We suspect not. But how could she have known what she did? If she is playing a long con, what's her angle? Is she working with someone? Is she having feelings for Stanley even though she's playing him? We're not sure. Let's keep watching.
On the drive back from Aunt Vanessa's, the borrowed roadster develops engine trouble. He attempts in vain to repair it as a thunderstorm approaches. A downpour drenches them, and they flee the road, down a ravine, and wind up at -- HEY, WHAT A COINCIDENCE! -- an unattended and well-lit observatory that Stanley used to visit when he was younger. Why is it unattended and yet fully powered? Great question. I don't know.
Stanley is overwhelmed by his new spiritual awakening and the presence of this dripping-wet, young, pretty woman who is so chilled that she has to ask him to put his arm around her to warm her. He does what any man would naturally do in that situation. He takes a nap on a marble bench while she paces for a couple of hours. Yeah. That's what he did.
He awakes. It's night, and Stanley decides to show Sophie what an observatory is good for. A small lever opens the clam-shell doors for the telescope, and reveals -- GASP -- a gorgeous crescent moon in a cloudless starry sky is directly visible. It was thunderclouds JUST before. And they didn't have to move a foot to see the moon through the narrow gap of the partially open door. It must be magic. In the moonlight. You know. Because that's what the movie is called.
I guess it goes without saying that we clearly sense a romantic tension at this point between Stanley and Sophie, but it IS 1928, and people didn't jump into bed then like I guess they do now. So we'll wait for them to dance.
It also goes without saying, based on my snark, that I really started to get a sense of either ham-handedness of the plot, or of deliberately confusion put in to make the final reveal more astonishing. I hoped for the latter, but was afraid it would be the former.
Oh, yeah, I forgot -- there's a throwaway character to … complicate… things, I guess? Brice (Hamish Linklater) from the American family is crushing on Sophie and wants her to marry him. He'll do ANYTHING for her, give her ANYTHING she wants. As long as she will let him croon bland love songs to her with his ukulele. His singing is not wonderful; I can see why she hesitates to encourage his courting, even with the prospect of a life in luxury. He obviously doesn't stand a chance at her heart against Stanley. I feel sad for him; he's so blithely unaware and naïve, he's more like a puppy than a person. Kick him and he'll still lick your face if you let him. Figuratively, I hope. Anyway. But he's a boring puppy. See? You've already forgotten him.
There's a party. Great Gatsby style. Beautiful, expensive, lavish. Stanley plans to dance mostly with Aunt Vanessa, and Sophie is with the puppy. Sophie cuts in, reminding Stanley he promised a dance with her. They dance, and the romantic tension is so strong you couldn't cut it with a knife.
So, it's a little surprising when, minutes later, Stanley sucker punches Sophie by telling her that he hasn't even thought about Sophie in a romantic way, after she asks him whether he has feelings for her "as a woman." He's pretty cold about it. Not even a little sympathetic to her misunderstanding.
What? Dude! Are you gay? Not a problem if you are, but, like, c'mon! What are you playing at, Stanley? Where is this going to go? As you can tell, I'm really kind of enjoying the possible
This is when my son paused the movie and shared his thought: maybe Stanley is grifting the grifter! He only pretended to have an epiphany that her clairvoyance was genuine.
I'm back in the movie, baby! This is going to be good. Team Stanley? Or Team Sophie? Who is the better deceiver, and who's going to get their heart broken, and how will they come back together? Let's continue!
Stanley plans to use his fame as a skeptic to endorse Sophie's gifts and give hope to the hopeless around the world, proclaiming that mysticism can be true, and that there is hope of an afterlife. If he's going for the big deception, he just upped the stakes. It's game on! What is Team Sophie going to bring?
Sophie, meanwhile, is still a bit shocked and heartbroken after Stanley stomped on her heart. It looks like she really wanted Stanley to care about her "as a woman." But maybe that's still just part of her game.
Just as Stanley concluded his press conference, he is informed that his Aunt Vanessa has been in an auto accident, and her condition is grave. He rushes to be with her. Good, it's good to see he actually has a heart and cares for someone, after he treated Sophie the way he did.
Here's an idea -- maybe Stanley is super-defensive because he'd been hurt once, and his automatic reaction is to extinguish any signs of romantic interest so he won't get hurt again. That would explain his behavior.
In anguish, he awaits news of Aunt Vanessa's care at the hospital. Desperate, he decides to try out his newly discovered faith in the unknowable. He rationalizes that a prayer to God is needed, and he begins to plead for Aunt Vanessa's life.
Until he hears himself talking.
In the middle of the prayer, he abruptly abandons the prayer as foolish -- the very thing he mocked and ridiculed for his adult life.
What? I guess he didn't want hope after all? Nothing happened to bring about this change of heart. The doctor didn't show up with a sad face. He didn't ask for a sign only to be rebuffed. He just suddenly felt foolish, and decided that Unhappy Curmudgeon Stanley was a much better person to be than Full Of Life And Love Stanley.
It's kind of like watching Carl, from Up, deciding to kick Russell out in some remote South American country with a map to the nearest American embassy, rather than letting him tag along with Kevin the Bird, because Russell is just getting in his way and that stupid bird is making everything worse.
Aunt Vanessa will survive, he's told. So enough with her! He's got anger to mete out!
Stanley storms back to Côte d'Azur, to tell Sophie what-for. Once back, he lays into Sophie, with Howard witnessing the rage, telling her that is was doctors and science and medicine, not prayer and God, that saved his Dear Aunt Vanessa that he didn't even see in her hospital bed. He plans to reveal her as a charlatan.
He leaves. Sophie turns to Howard, and we find out --
AH - The Big Reveal - At last!
That Team Sophie has included feckless, hand-wringing Howard. The two have conspired to play a trick on the previously un-trickable Stanley. Only now it's gone too far, and she's upset with Howard, and Howard with her.
Wait. They just let Stanley totally wreck his own career, because they wanted to bring a little humility to his hubris?
Some friend Howard is! What a snake in the grass!
But we're not done with the M. Night Shyamalan-ing yet. Just as Sophie and Howard have openly revealed their deception of Stanley to us…
… a previously-empty swivel chair in the room turns, and a self-satisfied, smug Stanley faces the two, laying bare the lie. He knew all along! The tricksters have been out-tricked yet again! It's very clever. I guess this is the actual "magic" part of the movie.
Except that Stanley's career is trashed. Who got the last laugh, now, Mister I-Can't-Be-Fooled?
We're in the last few minutes of the movie, now. Whatever else happens, had better happen pretty soon.
Angry Stanley goes right back to Aunt Vanessa. Oh, Aunt Vanessa will be fine. Better than fine. In fact, she's up and walking right away, though with a crutch. I guess modern medicine in 1928 was much further along then than it is now?
Stanley, ever the fickle creature, has another change of heart, and tells Aunt Vanessa that he actually did fall in love with Sophie. She says something nice, and Stanley decides that maybe he ought to go make nice with Sophie.
He does this by basically suggesting that he will let her marry him.
Despite this passionate gesture of romance and adoration, she decides to raise the stakes, and tells him that she still plans to marry the rich puppy dog.
Her rejection does him in. It doesn't occur to him that she helped orchestrate the end of his career, nor that her presence with the American family is predicated on a falsehood that would probably affect the way even the puppy feels about marrying her -- a falsehood he could now easily disclose.
But there's plenty of fickle to go around, don't you worry. Stanley returns to Aunt Vanessa's, but before he even gets his seat warm, who shows up but Sophie, ready to let Stanley let her marry him.
Because you know what's better than letting a filthy rich puppy dog give you anything you want for the rest of your life while he sings insipid songs at you? I'll tell you. Being a 25-year-old world-wise con-woman who suddenly decides she's really, truly, totally in love with the 53-year-old curmudgeon you just finagled into throwing away his own spiritual awakening, who knows he can't trust you further than he can spit, and whose reputation and career you just trashed with the help of one his best friends. Because older men are more attractive, I guess?
It's not that I think that May-December romances can't be fun to watch. Some Cary Grant movies are like that, and I enjoy them immensely. But they all have a lot more to offer than this.
This one had Woody Allen at the helm. That probably should have been enough of a warning.
I really should have known better. Maybe I'll watch his earlier movies, but I'm done watching anything new from him.