Trailer Face-Off: Magic in the Moonlight vs. The Two Faces of January

Published June 19, 2014

Welcome to Thursday Trailer Face-Off, a feature in which we cast a critical eye on two similar upcoming film releases, pitting them against each other across a variety of categories to determine which is most deserving of your two hours. This week: Magic in the Moonlight vs. The Two Faces of January, two period films about American con-artists living it up in Europe.

PremiseIf the films Magic in the Moonlight and The Two Faces of January share any one message, it is perhaps that, if you spend too much time across the Atlantic as an American, you’re bound to get in trouble. It doesn’t matter what decade you’re in—Europe of the 1920s and Europe of the 1960s are equally dangerous, filled with con-artists conning con-artists and “clever little humbugs.” For example, in Magic in the Moonlight, the extremely wealthy, slightly insipid, but nonetheless innocuous Catsomethingorother family is just trying to have a nice time at their French country house when a nefarious, lithe American named Sophie Baker convinces them that she is a spirit medium who can see into their souls. Miss Baker’s motivation is clear: to swindle the trusting family out of their millions. Set 40 years later and in Athens, Greece, The Two Faces of January revolves around an attractive American couple. While holidaying in Greece, it becomes evident that Mr. MacFarland is involved in some shady business, and some people with access to firearms are very angry with him. A young American also traveling on the continent agrees to help the MacFarlands out. They drag him down with them; unless he’s the one dragging the down with him. Would any of this have happened if the MacFarlanes and Catwhatsmecalleds had stayed in Kansas? Probably not.Advantage: The Two Faces of January

Self-PlagiaryMagicians, silly rich people summering in Europe, a poor upstart preying on their fortunes…if this all sounds a little familiar, it’s because it is. Writer-director Woody Allen has dabbled in these themes before, most recently in Scoop (2006) and Match Point (2005). But Allen isn’t the only writer seeking inspiration from his prior work. The Two Faces of January, a psychosexual,  hidden-motive-ridden thriller, is based on a novel of the same name written by Patricia Highsmith, she who created The Talented Mr. Ripley.Advantage: Tie

CastWe’ve been rooting for Kirsten Dunst since Interview with a Vampire, or at least Little Women. It seems like she’s had a shaky few years, and we really hope this is the film that will get her back on track. Viggo Mortensen, who plays Dunst’s husband, excels in dark thrillers (A History of Violence), and Oscar Isaac seems to show some promise. There are plenty of lovely people in Magic in the Moonlight: Emma Stone, Hamish Linklater, Marcia Gay Harden, but the brilliant Jacki Weaver (just rent Animal Kingdom) and Colin Firth tip the balance in the film’s favor.Advantage: Magic in the Moonlight

Love TriangleBoth films feature a love triangle and some rather tiresome, gender normative age gaps (32-year-old Dunst plays the wife of 55-year-old Mortensen; there is a 28-year age difference between Firth and Stone). Stone’s Sophie Baker has to choose between the smitten, wealthy, young-ish heir to the family she’s trying to con (played by Linklater), and the narcissistic, middle-aged English man who makes his living by pretending to be a Chinese man name Wei Ling Soo. The love triangle in The Two Faces of January is a little more complex, and a lot more sinister. Dunst’s Colette MacFarland is caught in web of sexual tension between her husband and the mysterious young student, both of whom are willing to commit violent acts against one another and perhaps Colette as well.Advantage: The Two Faces of January

DirectorThe Two Faces of January is Hossein Amini’s directorial debut, after a 25-year career as a screenwriter. He’s written some good films (Drive) and some not-so-good films (even our undying love for Heath Ledger can’t make The Four Feathers compelling). Allen has directed several good movies, but he’s hardly reliable in his craft. Advantage: The Two Faces of January

The VerdictWhy pay 14 dollars to see Magic in the Moonlight when you can stream Scoop for free? Yes, you could make the same argument about January and Mr. Ripley, but re-watching Jude Law in his glory days is a lot more depressing.Winner: The Two Faces of January