Wei Ling Soo is one of the world's most successful stage magicians back in 1928, priding himself on illusions which leave the audience gasping and in awe, but he has another agenda, for he is well aware his tricks are just that, a method of fooling the viewer, and anyone who claims to have genuine powers of the occult is nothing but a deliberate fraud in his opinion. This is why he doubles under his real name of Stanley Crawford (Colin Firth) as a professional fraudbuster, exposing society's fake psychics for the opportunists and moneygrabbers they are, and also why his good friend from childhood, Howard (Simon McBurney) thinks he has a real puzzler for him, a medium called Sophie Baker (Emma Stone) who may be the real deal...
Magic in the Moonlight happened along at a time when the psychic industry was stronger than ever, with even those who claimed not to believe in a deity or adhere to an organised religion aside from exchanging gifts at Christmas or eating chocolate at Easter - assuming that counted - willing to accept that there were those with the gift of talking to the spirits or reading minds. All that in spite of high profile sceptics like Richard Dawkins or Derren Brown telling us the whole business was a complete racket, and Brown could recreate those apparent powers without any need for anything supernatural, you just had to ask him. Then again, they were making a pretty penny out of the debunking trade as well, so it was a curious, symbiotic relationship between believers and non-believers.
This was writer and director Woody Allen's commentary on the subject, as much an examination in the justification of accepting there was a God as it was an illustration of how humankind could be fooled in their deepest beliefs. If that sounds as if it would be the cue for a heavy, Ingmar Bergman-esque drama about a crisis of faith, if you had caught Allen in a more serious frame of mind that may well have been the case, but the picturesque locations in the south of France apparently softened his outlook and he served up a light comedy with sincere musings you could mull over at your leisure, or simply soak in the scenery and witty banter. In practice, however, it did come across as if he was more interested in smuggling in the serious points than he was in the potential for romance.
Besides, Stone was young enough to be Firth's daughter, so obviously with Allen there was no chance of a romantic rela- oh, well maybe there was, as Stanley sets out all guns blazing to expose Sophie's act and finds himself against his will utterly fascinated by her. Although more or less the entire movie was characters discussing what they took to heart as their particular tenets, and could have seemed quite stuffy, the evocation of the late jazz age (which naturally included quite a bit of vintage jazz on the soundtrack) brought in an oddly carefree air for a film so concerned with what to expect once we've shuffled off the old mortal coil, and that created a tension of sorts that Allen didn't exactly know what to do with, judging by the pat manner it was wrapped up.
The big question was, is Sophie making it all up and fooling all and sundry, or is she the real thing? And more than that, did it matter when Stanley finally accepts she may be on to something and finds his existence brightened by the possibilities she has opened up for him? Once he is enticed by her charm and ostensible abilities to read both his mind and those around him, we are asked to consider that the illusions we live with are what get us through the day, for if we came to the conclusion we had been wasting our time with things that didn't matter for most of our lives, then what was the point? Don't we need some form of fantasy to keep us going, whether we were aware of it or not? Be that watching a movie or a faith in a higher power, the atheist Allen was mellowing if he was going along with the notion it is necessary to have something more than what we can reach out and touch to believe in, and that included love. As a story, the laughs were thin and it treaded water in too many stretches, but it was not necessarily the fluff it appeared to be.
American writer/director/actor and one of the most distinctive talents in American film-making over the last three decades. Allen's successful early career as a stand-up comedian led him to start his directing life with a series of madcap, scattershot comedies that included Bananas, Sleeper and Love and Death. 1975's Oscar-winning Annie Hall was his first attempt to weave drama and comedy together, while 1979's Manhattan is considered by many critics to be Allen's masterpiece.
The 90s saw Allen keep up his one-film-a-year work-rate, the most notable being the fraught Husbands and Wives, gangster period piece Bullets Over Broadway, the savagely funny Deconstructing Harry and the under-rated Sweet and Lowdown. After a run of slight, average comedies, Allen returned to more ambitious territory with the split-story Melinda and Melinda, the dark London-set drama Match Point, romantic drama Vicky Cristina Barcelona, one of many of his films which won acting Oscars, and the unexpected late-on hits Midnight in Paris and Blue Jasmine. In any case, he remains an intelligent, always entertaining film-maker with an amazing back catalogue.