Film Review: Defrosting Refrigerator Talk from Woody Allen’s “Magic in the Moonlight”

Alfred Hitchcock may not have coined the phrase, but it seems only appropriate, given his sizeable girth, that it has become associated with him. “Refrigerator talk,” in Hitchcockian terms, is that which arises when we go to the fridge for a bite after seeing a movie—especially a suspense film or thriller—and are suddenly struck by glaring discrepancies in the film’s plot. “Now wait a minute, that doesn’t make sense!” “How could that have happened?” and similar qualms about narrative inconsistencies or contradictions come back to haunt us in ways the filmmakers likely didn’t intend. If such questions only occur at the refrigerator stage, Hitchcock contended, the film will be forgiven to the extent that it was otherwise entertaining. If the nagging doubts emerge during the screening, however, the film is in trouble.

Woody Allen’s Magic in the Moonlight, unfortunately, elicits second thoughts both during and after its 97-minute running time. The story revolves around the attempt of uber-cynical, middle-aged Stanley Crawford, a British magician extraordinaire and renowned debunker of extrasensory phenomena, to expose the fraudulence of an alleged psychic in the person of fetching young American medium Sophie Baker (Emma Stone). In the cat-and-mouse game that ensues in Stanley’s effort to unmask the charlatan, the film not only operates on the suspense-film plane but can’t help but conjure, in its period setting and southern France locale replete with sports-car driving along coastal cliffs, Hitchcock’s Cary Grant-Grace Kelly cat-burglar classic To Catch a Thief (1955).

The film opens with a bang, as Stanley is introduced in 1920s Berlin in his Chinese magician persona, Wei Li Soo, to the accompaniment of the Rites of Spring, Bolero, and Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, as he causes an elephant to disappear and himself to pop like a subatomic particle from one side of the stage to the other. The promising set-up is subverted, however, when Stanley’s expertise as a psychic-debunker is immediately (and inexplicably) debunked by the most basic of ESP tricks. Instead of suspecting, as any intelligent viewer surely must, that someone has syphoned personal information to Sophie, Stanley first expresses curiosity, then awe, at her ability to dredge up secrets about his own and his Aunt Vanessa’s (Eileen Atkins) private lives. Not until the very end, and much too late to redeem his debunker’s rep, does it dawn on Stanley that he’s been hoodwinked by the man who had dragged him to the south of France in the first place, his magician colleague and friend Howard Burkan (Simon McBurney). Howard’s purpose, he explains when found out, was to avenge Stanley’s having so long lorded it over him as a superior magician.

The auteurist associations here are unmistakable. First, Howard is an obvious Allen look-alike and a dead ringer for the string of schlemielish characters he (or various surrogates) have played throughout his filmmaking career. Second, Allen was a gifted magician as a youth, performed professionally, and magic had played an important role in several of his previous films, most notably the comedy-thriller Scoop (2006) in which he actually plays a second-rate magician. More subtly, the American Howard’s inferiority complex vis a vis the Britisher Stanley echoes Allen’s career-long striving, openly avowed by him and noted (favorably and unfavorably) by critics, to match the artistic achievements of European idols such as Bergman, Fellini, and Truffaut.

These self-deprecating allusions serve to salve, but not to undo, the slight to our—and Stanley’s—intelligence inflicted by his initial and extended susceptibility to Sophie and Howard’s wiles. And refrigerator talk (if it takes that long to surface!) only makes matters worse.

Stanley ultimately falls in love with Sophie, and vice versa, as we also suspected (and, in romantic-film terms, hoped) they would. But Sophie’s transgression goes well beyond the elaborate hoax Howard had concocted. Before (and after) Howard himself had exposed her and recruited her for the hoax, Sophie’s larger plan, abetted by her mother (Marcia Gay Harden), was to use her physical allure and psychic “gift” to wangle a marriage proposal from multi-millionaire Brice (Hamish Linklater), whose fortune, beyond the high living it would enable, was also to fund an institute for the teaching of extrasensory phenomena. Trouble is, the plan not only succeeded, but Sophie intended to go through with it even after Stanley blew her cover—first in private and later in a proposed press conference that would have (and presumably still will) set the record straight on an earlier one in which he had humbled (if not humiliated) himself to vouch for her authenticity.

The refrigerator talk here is twofold: How did Sophie expect to maintain her hold on Brice, much less the psychic institute, once he—and the world—learned that she was a phony? More important, from a romantic standpoint, how could Stanley persist in his love for a woman who was not only a fake, who used her fakery to rope in a wealthy suitor and soil Stanley’s reputation, but who planned—somehow!— to follow the same sordid path?

Intertextual associations with To Catch a Thief don’t help much either, as Cary Grant’s character was a “retired” cat burglar and the upshot of the film was to reaffirm his reformation.  “Love is blind” is a possible moral for the amorality inherent in Stanley’s actions. Indeed, such blindness may help explain his otherwise inexcusable inability to see through Sophie’s chicanery. To accept such a proposition, however, may be giving the film more credit, despite its considerable cinematic and Noel Cowardian charms, than it deserves. At the very least, it requires a refrigerator better stocked than mine.

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Vincent Brook teaches at UCLA, USC, Cal-State LA, and Pierce College. Besides dozens of journal articles, anthology essays, encyclopedia entries, and reviews, he’s authored or edited five books, most recently Land of Smoke and Mirrors: A Cultural History of Los Angeles and (as co-editor) Woody on Rye: Jewisheness in the Films and Plays of Woody Allen.

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