“He began as an escape artist. Interesting choice if anyone ever wanted to escape from reality. But, like Freud, he will not permit himself to be seduced by childish thoughts just because they’re more comforting. Very unhappy man. I like him.”
Woody’s stand-in psychoanalyst offers his thoughts on Stanley, the protagonist of Magic in the Moonlight. I took a particular interest in the film because of its premise. To this hobbyist magician, Stanley seems a mashup of Joseph Dunninger, Harry Houdini, and possibly James Randi. In addition to being a master conjuror, he has a laugh debunking spiritualists and other assorted con artists. You could just call him Houdini and be done with it, if not for his distinct Britishness, privileged background, and the tailoring. His ego is, however, in the same ballpark, although Stanley lacks Houdini’s whimsy.
Allen uses Stanley to apparently contrast the bitter tight-lipped world of the rationalist and the airy romantic world of Sophie, a skilled American grifter with a much more pleasant disposition. By the film’s end the debunker and the fraud find some semblance of happiness in each other’s arms. But a quirky romantic comedy, this is not. Allen never really plays devil’s advocate with Sophie, even if some small part of him recognizes that nice people are more fun to be around than grumps.
The problem with Stanley is not that he doesn’t believe in psychics, gods, or the spirit world. His problem is that he has given up on this world and the people in it. His dreams are small, stale, and overly concerned with success. He is the cliché atheist that the religious warn us about. Nevertheless, he is the only character capable of changing in the film. Sophie remains much the same by the end, even if she is apologetic for being dishonest, and the other characters are all stuck in the comforts of class and inherited wealth. Although Stanley is insufferable, he is a better person than those he keeps company with.
I am not in the business of defending curmudgeons, but in this film, everyone is either dishonest or blissfully ignorant except for Stanley. Sophie is pleasant, but she has little regard for anyone but herself and her mother. Stanley excuses her desperation by the end, but even he recognizes the absurdity of their romantic pairing. To me, this feels like Allen shrugging his shoulders at the human condition. Stanley is right about everything except his own desires, and it’s only when he starts being honest with himself that he’s able to start living. The tendency with these sorts of things is to separate the head and the heart, like in Stanley’s comment that when the heart rules the head, disaster follows. Allen partly dissolves this unnecessary dichotomy. It is, after all, in a debate with his Aunt that Stanley is finally convinced of his own romantic feelings towards Sophie. You could argue he was manipulated, but he is a consensual victim, and much like in real magic (that is, fake magic), the fooling never strays far from the truth.