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A Brief Review of "Magic in the Moonlight" / More Complaints About Skeptical Characters

Hey, everybody!  It's that time again!  Time for me to be all bitchy about the portrayal of skeptics in pop culture!

Today we're going to look at Magic in the Moonlight, Woody Allen's 2014 effort about the improbable romance between a magician / debunker and a young woman who claims to be a psychic.

First, as I normally do, let's just talk about general impressions.

The Bit Where I Talk About Woody Allen's Possible Legal Problems

Fuck that.  I'm not doing that here.  "But I want to hear you defend / attack a guy based on things you don't know anything about!" you protest.  And I say, "Nope.  No comment."

I'm not even entirely sure that I fully understand what the allegations were, let alone the circumstances around them, and I especially have no concept of whatever evidence - or lack thereof - exists to condemn / exonerate him.  It's a matter about which I am entirely unqualified to have an opinion.  So... not getting into it.

The Bit Where I Review the Movie

Magic in the Moonlight is a romantic comedy about a skeptical magician, Stanley (Colin Firth) who tries to debunk a psychic, Sophie (Emma Stone).  His skeptical exterior crumbles when he believes Sophie to be the real deal, and soon he finds [cue sappy trailer voice] that she may actually be what he's been looking for all along.

It's not one of Allen's better films, but it's certainly not one of his worst.  MitM is one of those movies you watch and say, "Oh, that was cute," and then you go on with your day without thinking about it too much.  (Unless you're like me and you've got an ax to grind about something that nobody else cares about.)

The most disappointing thing about it is that it follows the romantic comedy formula almost perfectly.  One of the things that I love most about Allen's films is that they usually play with, subvert, or even redefine movie formulas.  Consider Annie Hall or Manhattan.  Or, if you want to go with his best movie, Love and Death.  Knowing that the same guy who made those would eventually make MitM almost feels depressing - again, it's not a bad movie, it's just such a step down.

Ironically, I'm actually really sympathetic to some of his less popular comedies, like Small Time Crooks.  As long as they don't have a romantic angle to them, I feel like I approach them with less of an expectation than I bring to the romcoms, so I'm able to just enjoy them for what they are.

Anyway. MitM got kind of beat up on by the critics, and despite all the moaning you're going to get from me in this review, I don't think it deserved that.  Formulaic though it may be, it still features strong performances by Colin Firth and Emma Stone with a delightful supporting cast.  (Except for one specific actress, whose name I'm not going to look up because I don't want to belittle her.  She's one of the rich ladies that hangs out with everyone, and she's just awful.  Awful.  But she's the only one - everyone else is solid.)

The plot is nothing special or memorable, but it's entertaining and it actually does its job of being both romantic and comedic.  It's the romcom equivalent of one of those dumb action movies I love, like Homefront.

But you know I didn't write a post just to shrug and say, "It's okay."  No - I'm here to bitch about skepticism in the movies yet again.

The Bit Where I Nitpick the Portrayal of Skepticism

To its credit, MitM is actually pretty fair and level-headed about skepticism, for the most part.  I've seen plenty of worse examples, so by comparison this is actually one of the best portrayals.

For one thing, there actually isn't any magic.  (Spoiler.)  Firth's initial hypothesis proves correct and he eventually does gather enough evidence to disprove the paranormal claims.  But more importantly, his understanding and perception of reality changes as he is presented with new evidence.  When it seems pretty clear that Stone is a psychic, he adjusts his worldview to allow for an afterlife.  And when the evidence of her powers is discredited, his worldview readjusts.

It's rare to find a movie that will even give you one of these qualities, let alone both. So I should just be grateful that we got a reasonable and accurate understanding of science and skepticism for once.

But I'm totally going to look that gift horse in the mouth, because I'm a dickhead with a blog.

My beef is that Firth's character is such a miserable prick.  He's not content to simply disbelieve in the afterlife - he has to lord that over believers and the faithful.  And he's soooooo morose about it.  "Life ends and then you rot."  He sits around grumping about how pointless everything is and how we're all doomed and who gives a shit and existence is misery and so on.

I've never met anybody whose overall sense of happiness depended entirely on what happens after you die.  I've met miserable people, sure, but they're just miserable - nothing cheers 'em up.  That's how people are.  You have an internal happiness scale that gets fixed to a certain point, and even though you might bounce a few degrees above and below, your baseline never really changes that much.  Some people are just dicks.

And it would be totally fine if he was a dick throughout - but the movie portrays his dickishness as being tied firmly to his belief in life after death.  Once he believes, he's suddenly peppy and full of vigor.  And once he discredits the belief, he's back to Half a Bag on the dickometer.

It feels dishonest to me.  The movie is cute and fun when his inherent negativity is contrasted by Stone's brightness, so why not just keep that as your through-line?  Why not just have him be a naturally angry person?

It almost makes a point of how he becomes a better person under Stone's influence, which is the natural conclusion to make in the love story.  "I was miserable until I met you."  Done.  There's your character arc.  But that arc gets murky in the second act, so it just comes off like a confused story.

The Part Where I Give My Rating

Look at that!  I put my rating at the end of my review for a change.  Anyway, the bottom line is that it's a fun, crowd-pleasing movie with fun performances and only a little bit of racism.  If I wasn't bitching about the skepticism, I'd probably be bitching about something else, so don't read too much into my nitpicking.  This one's worth checking out.

My Rating: 3.5 / 5