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Movie Review

Many spiritual pilgrims throughout the ages have experienced a crisis of unbelief, moments of doubt that rocked their core convictions. In Magic in the Moonlight, a famously skeptical magician experiences exactly the opposite: a crisis of belief in which he begins to question his long-held doubts.

Stanley Crawford is a world-renowned illusionist who, under the guise of his Chinese stage persona, Wei Ling Soo, can make an elephant vanish and seemingly teleport himself from one place another. This sophisticated spectacle is all stage chicanery of the highest order, of course. But being a master trickster has made him a master in another area as well—spotting frauds and fakes who insist their spiritual and occult "powers" are authentic.

But they never are, Stanley insists. "There is no metaphysical world," he says emphatically. "What you see out there is what you get." So when Stanley's not wearing Wei Ling Soo's elaborate oriental costume, he spends his time debunking so-called mediums and spiritualists, arrogantly venting his contempt for spirituality of all kinds. "I don't know who I hate more," he says at one point, "those who prey on the gullible" or the susceptible victims seduced by their lies.

Enter Howard Burkan, a fellow magician and Stanley's lone friend. Howard connects with Stanley after a show in Berlin in 1928 and tells him there's a young woman named Sophie Baker who, along with her mother, has beguiled a fabulously rich American family in the South of France. Howard's sure she's a con artist on the prowl. But despite his own considerable prestidigitatory skill, he can't prove it.

Perhaps Stanley can, Howard suggests.

Indeed, Stanley is utterly certain that he'll be able to expose the "American gypsy" as the "sleazy fraud" he believes she is.

Then he meets her, a young woman half his age whose charm is indisputable and whose occult abilities—contacting the dead, knowing details about his life—seem beyond explaining, let alone debunking. "I believed that the dull reality of life is all that there is, but you are proof that there's more," Stanley tells Sophie breathlessly. "More mystery, more magic."

As Stanley falls in love with Sophie and begins to shed his caustic, pessimistic, skeptical worldview, a new world of love and hope and possibility opens up before him. But because this is a Woody Allen movie, the one thing you can be certain of is that Stanley's earnest embrace of what he formerly rejected as "poppycock" likely won't last long.

[Spoilers are contained in the following sections.]

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Positive Elements

Magic in the Moonlight ultimately affirms that love is a good, even "magical" thing. Despite Sophie's serious flaws (which are unveiled as the film progresses), Stanley finds that she has opened his heart to the possibility of something bigger than his utterly rational naturalistic worldview usually allows, and he's subsequently happier than he's ever been in his whole life.

A relatively minor, but important, character is Stanley's Aunt Vanessa, who lives on a nearby estate. We hear that Vanessa is mostly responsible for raising Stanley, and she is almost infinitely patient when it comes to her nephew's off-putting arrogance. Vanessa isn't a particularly spiritual person, but she challenges Stanley to believe that not everything is as clear-cut and certain as he thinks it is.

Spiritual Content

Stanley Crawford is an arch atheist, the absolute epitome of modernistic unbelief. He frequently quotes the likes of Nietzsche, Hobbes, Freud and Darwin, the tallest pillars in modernism's pantheon. He has long believed there's no meaning or purpose in life and no metaphysical reality of any kind beyond this one—a belief frequently articulated outside of this movie by its director. (More on that in the Conclusion.) Only weak-minded dupes cling to the false hopes offered by spirituality and religion, Stanley says repeatedly. The brave ones reject such falsities.

Stanley's convictions are sorely challenged when Sophie seemingly does things that are beyond comprehension or explanation. She shares details about his life and the lives of others she couldn't possibly know. In a séance, she apparently summons the spirit of Harry Catledge, the patriarch of the Catledge clan with whom Sophie has taken up semipermanent residence. She asks Harry all manner of yes-no questions, to which he responds with a knocking sound. A candle levitates.

Stanley readily admits that the lack of a metaphysical reality means that there is no hope or purpose at all in life. Not surprisingly, this reality leaves him miserable, morose and cynical. When he comes to believe that Sophie is manifesting a spiritual reality from beyond the physical realm, he dares for the first time to hope that perhaps life can have meaning and purpose after all. The result? He's suddenly happy to the point of being giddy and able to appreciate the world's beauty in a way never before possible for him.

When Aunt Vanessa is badly injured, Stanley goes so far as to start praying. He confesses he's been "a man with contempt for those who've given themselves over" to belief in God, adding that he's come to believe in the possibility that God "could be real."

Mid-prayer, however, Stanley has a revelation—and not a spiritual one—that leads to him completely debunking Sophie's superpowers. After that, Stanley lurks back into his unbelief. So when someone suggests that another person's prayers for Vanessa are what helped bring her through surgery, Stanley snaps, "God had nothing to do with it. She had good doctors." He also sharply tells Sophie, "I can't forgive you. Only God can forgive you."

"You said there is no God," she replies.

"Precisely my point," he spits.

Elsewhere we hear the query, "Why would God go to such trouble if everything comes to naught?" And Harry's widow says that hearing from Harry at the séance (she believes) confirms that there's more to our existence than just our physical reality. "Sophie is living proof that the world is alive with hidden things," she adds later. Multiple conversations reference the question of whether the universe is an accidental, chaotic and purposeless jumble or whether there is an intelligent, personal designer behind it. There's implicit talk of heaven and an explicit reference to hell.

Sexual Content

Stanley subtly suggests that Sophie's mother could be prostituting her daughter as well as acting as her manager. There's a discussion about whether Harry had an affair. It's revealed that Vanessa cheated with a married man years before. One of Wei Ling Soo's female assistants has a costume with cones accentuating her breasts. Stanley and Sophie kiss.

Violent Content

Stanley and Howard joke about "magically" cutting women's heads off and sawing them in half. Wei Ling Soo upbraids an assistant for moving at the wrong time, saying he could have stabbed her to death—which would have resulted in "blood on my ensemble." We hear a story about Stanley's uncle drowning.

Crude or Profane Language

Variants of "d--n" are used three times, "h---" once. We hear one or two uses each of "oh my god," "oh lord" and "lord knows." Stanley lobs mean labels such as "moron" and "boobs" at people he considers fools.

Drug and Alcohol Content

Characters smoke cigarettes and drink alcohol throughout. (We hear requests for scotch and whiskey.)

Other Negative Elements

Conclusion

Woody Allen has never been shy when it comes to talking about his refusal to believe in God. In 2008, he told Newsweek he doesn't believe life has any purpose: "Your perception of time changes as you get older, because you see how brief everything is. You see how meaningless. … I don't want to depress you, but it's a meaningless little flicker." And combing through a litany of his quotes from six decades of filmmaking, it's not hard to find that sentiment reiterated elsewhere. "Not only is there no God, but try getting a plumber on weekends," he once quipped.

In Magic in the Moonlight, Stanley Crawford, then, seems an obvious stand-in for Mr. Allen himself. What's interesting here, however, is that Stanley's arrogant atheism makes him insufferable. Actor Colin Firth, who plays Stanley, says of his character, "He is supercilious, judgmental, cynical and arrogant, and has a very high opinion of his superior intellect. … I don't think I have ever played a protagonist in a film who gets so close to being completely unsympathetic." Woody Allen may be an unapologetic atheist ("To you, I'm an atheist; to God, I'm the loyal opposition," he once said), but he also seems to understand that lack of belief cannot help but make it hard to find meaning, purpose or hope in life. The film suggests, then partially retracts, the idea that only something spiritual, something outside the realm of the natural, can really provide true hope.

Obviously it stops well short of understanding that such true hope can only come through God and His Son Jesus' saving work on the cross. Indeed, Woody and Stanley steadfastly reject the idea and possibility of God. But both have moments when they can see how the existence of God—even when only acknowledged by way of the occult—provides the hope and meaning both of them admit they lack.

Still, the best that Stanley seems capable of hoping for is love, a feelings-derived magic that's never linked to the truly spiritual but perhaps offers enough transcendent experience and meaning to help him (and, it would seem, Woody) sleep at night.

This is tricky territory to be sure, often more smoke and mirrors than serious substance. But the question of whether Woody Allen's overarching message here is accidentally half right or depressingly more than half wrong could serve as a discussion springboard for deeper spiritual issues among those who choose to see this movie, one that has surprisingly few content concerns elsewhere.

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Summary Advisory

Plot Summary

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Kissing/Sex/Homosexuality

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Credits

Rating

PG-13

Readability Age Range

Author

Cast

Colin Firth as Stanley Crawford; Emma Stone as Sophie Baker; Marcia Gay Harden as Mrs. Baker; Simon McBurney as Howard Burkan; Eileen Atkins as Aunt Vanessa; Jacki Weaver as Grace Catledge; Hamish Linklater as Brice Catledge; Erica Leerhsen as Caroline Catledge; Jeremy Shamos as George; Catherine McCormack as Olivia

Distributor

Sony Pictures Classics

Network

Performance

Record Label

Platform

Publisher

In Theaters

July 25, 2014

On Video

December 16, 2014

Year Published

Awards

Reviewer

Adam R. Holz

We hope this review was both interesting and useful. Please share it with family and friends who would benefit from it as well.

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