Arts & Culture

‘Frank’ out-enchants ‘Magic’

‘Frank’ examines magic of the ordinary self, while ‘Magic in the Moonlight’ falls short

By
Contributing Writer
Friday, September 5, 2014

“Magic in the Moonlight,” Woody Allen’s latest film, conjures up familiar illusions drawn from the rest of his work. Where it differs from most of his canon, however, is in its failure — despite its title — to suspend our disbelief, or cast any real enchantment.

Allen’s inventiveness is absent here. The film uses so many of his well-worn conceits that it borders on self-parody: the older male cynic, educated and full of disdain; a young, uneducated but beautiful and innocent woman for the older man to scold and with whom he eventually falls in love.

“Magic in the Moonlight” follows Stanley Crawford, played by Colin Firth, a magician who appears under the name Wei Ling Soo in a problematic relic of 1920s orientalism. At the behest of his friend Howard Burkan, played by Simon McBurney, Stanley tries to debunk a spiritualist, Sophie Baker, played by Emma Stone, who resides in the Cote D’Azur home of a wealthy American family.

Stanley arrives to the estate after Sophie has captivated the heir to the family’s fortune, Brice, played by Hamish Linklater. Stanley spends much of the first part of the film grimacing and eye-rolling at the true believers of her powers, sarcastically mocking the family’s intelligence — until, predictably, Sophie begins to amaze him, cause him to doubt his long-held skepticism and, of course, enchant him as well.

Part of the film’s problem is Stanley himself. He’s a jerk to everyone around him, and treats the whole situation with such smug, resolute superiority that it’s hard not to want to hit him. Unlikable, yes, but he also seems unnecessarily cruel, as though he relishes every dream he has broken, every bit of wonder he has stamped out. The normally great Firth doesn’t bring the lightness of touch to the role that Allen, or some of his past stand-ins like Owen Wilson, could create. Even at his most neurotic and skeptical, Allen as an actor managed to make himself endearing. Here, though, it’s hard to believe how the character appeals to anyone, especially a beautiful and successful young woman like Sophie.

Stanley’s fiancee, Olivia, while barely present throughout the film, serves as the obvious foil to Sophie. She also speaks some of the clunkiest dialogue: In one of the most overt pieces of character exposition in the film, she demands whether Stanley fell in love with her for logic and rationalism.

The landscape serves as one of the film’s points of redemption. The French Riviera is captured here in all its glamorous Old World beauty, perfectly evocative of the period. Perhaps the fun of that world can save “Magic in the Moonlight” a bit, at least as a piece of pure entertainment. It’s enjoyable and forgettable and innocuous enough to watch, but from Allen, we should expect a better show.

“Frank,” a new film by Lenny Abrahamson, similarly deals with a world of deception and transcendent possibility. Where “Magic in the Moonlight” celebrates the unrepentant skeptic hoping to disprove the claim of communion with a divine world, “Frank” explores loneliness from the perspective of an envious admirer.

In “Frank,” there’s something sublimely magical about the artifice. The film takes great pains to humanize and deepen its titular character, not to demonstrate his true hollowness. The truth behind the mask is enriched, not diminished, by its quotidian and troubled self.

The film follows Jon, played excellently by Domhnall Gleeson, an aspiring, earnest but ultimately talentless musician as he joins “the Soronprfbs” after stumbling upon a suicide attempt by the band’s keyboardist. But the true center of the film is Frank, the band’s leader, singer and spiritual guru, who permanently wears a large papier-mache head. Talented, enigmatic and full of philosophical authority, Frank is everything that the bumbling Jon is not — and much of the film focuses on the strange friendship of admiration and envy that forms between these two men.

Michael Fassbender is revelatory as Frank. It’s a difficult role to perform, and he manages to give an emotive and poignant performance without facial expressions in his arsenal. Frank is equal parts cult leader and precious child, both revered and sheltered by his band of misfits. Cara, the band’s theremin player portrayed by Maggie Gyllenhaal, particularly embodies this double role. Ever wary and dismissive of Jon, the outsider, she serves simultaneously as a mother to Frank — trying to protect him from the dangers of the perceived interloper — and as a perpetually unnoticed admirer. Yet Cara is not a wholly tragic figure. Her undisguised disgust with Jon provides some of the movie’s funniest moments.

This wariness, which initially seems excessive, ultimately is not wholly unwarranted. The bulk of the film takes place in isolated retreat, as the band members try to make an album and find themselves. But Jon has greater ambitions, recording the retreat’s events and sharing them with a rapidly growing online fanbase, which he turns into a gig at South by Southwest.

As expected, this newfound exposure takes its psychological toll on the group, whose idyllic world begins to unravel. “Frank” portrays the mental illness of its characters with touching gravity, never trivializing neurosis into cheap comedy, or a dissonant plea for pathos.

Quirky has become a derogatory term when talking about film. Critics now lazily employ the overused term to describe those independent films that employ a tired aesthetic of dysfunctional characters and offbeat dialogue. “Frank,” a darkly comic film, is, if anything, an examination of  the “quirky,” of the devastating struggles that lie underneath the superficially offbeat. Quirky, in “Frank,” is not something to be taken lightly.

“Magic in the Moonlight” is now playing at Providence Place Mall. “Frank,” which recently showed at the Avon, is now playing at Kendall Square in Cambridge, Massaschusetts.

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  • Sue

    I loved Magic in the Moonlight. Did we see the same movie? I don’t know your gender, but take it from me, Colin Firth was as Sophie would say was very appealing. It was witty and he was supposed to be a misanthrope. And a very sexy one he was indeed.