“Magic In The Moonlight”
OK, all of you genteel folks who have been complaining loudly about how there is no eloquence left any more, that all movie dialogue is profane, and current cinema is nothing but shoot-em’-ups and sci-fi and gross-out humor and nudity and kid stuff. Here, at last, is a romantic drama that looks like it could have been shot in the 1950’s. Never mind that at times it’s as stilted as much of the acting was back then, as well. And the smoking is as prevalent as back then, also. We still have everybody dressed up at all times, and keeping all their clothes on at all times, as well. The sensuality has to happen between the ears.
The setting is 1928. We begin in Berlin (before the Nazis came to power), where a certain stage magician, Wei Ling Soo, is astounding nightclub audiences with his disappearing elephant trick. But backstage, our minor celebrity, whose real name is Stanley (Colin Firth), is an irascible tyrant who constantly fusses about idiot underlings, and generally attempts to make everyone around him as unhappy as he is. He’s obviously arrogant and egomaniacal, though he merely considers himself the only one around with any sense. He seems to have only one friend in the world, a fellow stage magician named Howard (Simon McBurney), whom he hasn’t even seen in a year. But Howard comes calling backstage with the news that a rich young friend of his has become smitten with a young American lass who insists that she is a medium, and can communicate with the “other world.” Howard asks if Stanley can help de-bunk the myth and so free his rich young friend from a charlatan gold-digger who has her hooks into him. Stanley readily agrees to go, because it’s a sort of a life-mission of his to de-bunk these so-called mediums, because he is a complete rationalist who doesn’t believe in anything other-worldly, whether spirits, angels, demons, afterlife, or even God. If you can’t see it or prove it, it doesn’t exist. Oh, and not coincidentally, he’s never been in love, either. To be sure, there is a fiancée, Olivia (Catherine McCormack), a quite intelligent and sensible and well-educated woman who’s comfortably suitable company. But she was the one who proposed marriage. And they haven’t gotten around to setting a date yet. And besides, she’s on holiday right now without him.
Cue the sleek roadsters, the beautiful French countryside in the 1920’s (during the idyllic couple of decades between the two World Wars). Cue the popular ballad music written a hundred years ago. Stanley, upon arriving at the palatial estate of his friendly old-money hosts, does indeed discover a rich young man continually swooning over his American beau, to the extent that he’s constantly (and badly) serenading her with love songs on his ukulele, and promising her a life of comfort and ease with him. Sophie (Emma Stone), for her part, does indeed appear willowy and winsome, and also tells Stanley personal things about his life that stun him. How could she have known? Howard, also, assures his old friend Stanley that Sophie has told him things about himself that were not public knowledge, either. After Stanley and Sophie get to spend some time together, suddenly Stanley is convinced that he’s been wrong all his life: that there is such a thing as dimensions we cannot see. This even opens him up to the possibility of praying, when his beloved Aunt is in the hospital undergoing emergency surgery, and his prayer is so sincere and heartfelt that it’s almost breathtaking, until he “comes to his senses” and decides it’s all a bunch of bunk, like he’s always thought.
The one twist I can offer is that there’s no epiphany about the Deity, but there is a growing realization that there could be such a thing as love. And it can change both hearts and minds.
A little schlocky, despite the cultured trappings? Sure. But why not? You could do a lot worse than a delicate, elegant, dialogue-driven romance, even if the guy is old enough to be her father. This is Woody Allen, remember?
Dr. Ronald P. Salfen is the Minister at St. Stephen’s Presbyterian Church, Irving , Texas