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Review: “Magic in the Moonlight”

Unique ideas and strong female leads, a couple reasons Woody Allen films stand out in this market of action heroes and biopics. In Magic in the Moonlight, those traits resonate as a story about an illusionist (Colin Firth) asked to debunk the genuinely charming Emma Stone, a mystic too good to possibly be true.

Stone, as the cheeky Sophie Baker from Kalamazoo, enchants our socks off line by line from the first time her face lights up with that grin and she concludes “You’re making fun of me” in the sweetest, most non-invasive way. But she invades our hearts quickly, don’t get me wrong, because we’re as smitten as Stanley (Firth) and even Brice (Hamish Linklater), the serenading lover boy.

Stanley, who moonlights as Chinese magician Wei Ling Soo, believes in himself and his aunt Vanessa, the sly and sometimes perpetually antagonistic Eileen Atkins.

This renders him an overbearingly frustrating male lead — though, we’re partly so appealed by Sophie because she has him figured out as soon as they meet. To say Stanley’s ambitious would reflect poorly on the wishful thinker Owen Wilson plays in one of my recent Woody Allen favs, Midnight in Paris.

The better 2011 film sets the bar with a charismatic male and two strong ladies — the smokey girl of our dreams (Marion Cotillard) and the bossy fiancé (Rachel McAdams) — to accompany a fantastical story idea. Up against these actresses and Oscar-winner Cate Blanchett, Stone shines and sticks around for Allen’s next project, an untitled work coming 2015.

It’s a problem with Magic in the Moonlight that there’s a  strain in deciding who we’re supposed to root for. Ms. Baker’s main dilemma, it seems, is picking between suitors Stanley or Brice. She’s a young woman who’s never been challenged before and that admirably draws her to Firth’s character, but you’d almost rather see her end up with the Linklater’s perfectly presented hapless, ukulele-playing love puppy.

The even bigger issue at hand comes when you’re solely rooting against progress. Intentionally or not, you hope Sophie’s talent is real, that Stanley can’t figure her out because you need something to believe in. The good-willed mystic is it.

I was frazzled by the bouncy, avoidable ending because it shot everyone’s credibility. Sophie Baker didn’t deserve to be a let down and it seems Allen wrongly misdirected us in that respect.

“Magic in the Moonlight”: ★★


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