Newspaper article International New York Times

Metaphysical Sleight of Heart

Newspaper article International New York Times

Metaphysical Sleight of Heart

Article excerpt

In Woody Allen's "Magic in the Moonlight," a magician is summoned to the French Riviera to expose a young clairvoyant who has won over a rich family.

Magic in the Moonlight. Directed by Woody Allen.

"Magic in the Moonlight," Woody Allen's new film, stages a debate that will be familiar to anyone who has seen more than a couple of the previous 43. There are various ways to characterize the argument: between reason and superstition; between doubt and faith; between realism and magic. On one side is the belief in some kind of unseen, metaphysical force governing the universe; on the other is the certainty, shared by the director, that no such thing exists. Not incidentally -- and not for the first time in Mr. Allen's oeuvre -- the opposed positions are advanced by a dyspeptic middle-aged intellectual and a much younger, relatively untutored woman. Among the big jokes this time around: She misattributes a literary quotation and seems never to have heard of Nietzsche.

If the idea of a universe of unmotivated chaos seems scary, rest assured that the reality of 98 minutes of unmotivated order is worse. Mr. Allen has had his ups and downs over the years. Rarely, though, has he put a story on screen that manifests so little energy. "Magic in the Moonlight" is less a movie than the dutiful recitation of themes and plot points conducted by a squad of costumed actors. The tidy narrative may advance with clockwork precision, but the clock's most prominent feature is the snooze button.

We are sometime between the world wars, in a fanciful Europe of leisure and refinement. Stanley, a stage magician who performs under the name Wei Ling Soo (and who is played by a grimly hard-working Colin Firth), is summoned to the French Riviera to expose a fraud. He also visits an aunt, played by Eileen Atkins, who is the only source of real delight in the movie despite being nothing more than a convenient cog in its machinery.

Stanley's target is Sophie (Emma Stone), a pretty and penniless American clairvoyant who has dazzled a rich family with her supposed gifts. While her business-minded mother (Marcia Gay Harden) works to extract money from the credulous, widowed matriarch (Jacki Weaver), Sophie reads minds, summons spirits and endures the ukulele serenades of the family's shallow scion (Hamish Linklater), who has fallen in love with her. Stanley wages a grouchy, sarcastic war on her credibility, only to find himself smitten by her gamine charm and persuaded by her claims of paranormal ability.

Mr. Allen has often accomplished much more with a good deal less. Some of his most satisfying pictures -- "Zelig," "Sweet and Lowdown," "Broadway Danny Rose" -- are spun from gossamer-thin nostalgic anecdotes. "Bullets Over Broadway" even grew into a Broadway musical, albeit one whose early closing was announced this week. …

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