The Great Gassy
For me, Woody Allen's latest comedy, Magic in the Moonlight, was an emotional roller coaster. His 1928-set romantic comedy soars with spot-on, electric performances that serve a script dripping with wordsmith porn. But at the precise moment when the third act begins, Allen's premise, story, and characters disintegrate before our very eyes. The laughs succumb to ponderous declarations of love and dismissals of same, and his formerly fantastic leading couple (Colin Firth and Emma Stone) transform from delight to delivery system. I can't recall the last time a movie slipped so gracelessly, so quickly, from top-of-the-year to "Get me out of here".
Let's rewind. Firth plays a renowned illusionist named Stanley who travels the world performing as a Chinese mystic. One night, his age-old professional rival/best friend, Howard (Simon McBurney), shows up back stage and asks for his help in busting a fraudulent psychic. A young girl, he claims, has latched onto a wealthy widower (Jacki Weaver) and her doofus son (Hamish Linklater), bringing them messages of hope from the other side. Concerned relatives had hired Howard to expose the sham, but he'd been unable to figure it out. If Stanley would join him in the French countryside for a few weeks, his friend says, he'd not only get a break from touring, but also continue his reign as the world's premiere debunker of otherworldly phenomena.
The pompous egotist Stanley agrees, and is quite sure of himself--until he meets Sophie (Stone). Beautiful, sassy, and apparently genuinely clairvoyant, she makes a believer out of him, and blows wide open decades of skepticism, atheism, and misanthropy. Allen proves himself a master of misdirection here, at first making us invest in the cranky, snobbish magician, before plunging us headlong into love with Sophie (or, more precisely, with Stone; even more precisely, with Stone and Firth). The first hour flies past, as we enjoy snappy interstitials broken up by lively clarinets and scenic postcard portraits of rural France. It's almost enough to conceal the story's central mystery: is Sophie really gifted, or is Stanley being had?
The answer is satisfying, in a fashion, but the big reveal's aftermath is thirty minutes of belabored predictability. Act three plays as if Allen had said everything he'd needed to say about man's quest for meaning in the universe through rich characters--and then realized he needed to pad the run-time for theatrical-release consideration. I have no proof that he hired an assistant to merge his margin notes with hackneyedplots.com's first ten entries to construct the last half hour--but there's enough evidence here to at least make a case.
Were it not for the contrived, meandering bits that precede a rather sweet closing shot, I'd call this a fine companion piece to Midnight in Paris. Both movies deal with existentially fractured minds and mid-life crises. Both do so in fun, funny, creative ways. But Allen cops out several stretches before the finish line, sacrificing brains and heart for uncharacteristic convention. There truly is magic in the moonlight, but this story is dead by dawn.