With dozens of talky, neurotic, and mannered comedies to his name, Woody Allen has become an industry to himself. As such it has become necessary to use the comparative model when looking at the annual release of the Euro-set whimsical tales he produces like clockwork with varying degrees of success. When judged against more contemporary filmmakers Allen can be considered an antiquated taste at best, moldy at worst. Yet even when compared to the diminishing returns of his most recent output the mildly charming Magic in the Moonlight only manages to feel magical intermittently and never ceases to be a lesser entry on Allen's resume.
The sun-kissed Cote d’Azur of the roaring '20s serves as an alluring backdrop to this whimsical trifle, a befitting locale for the glamorous duo of Emma Stone and Colin Firth. When we meet the great debunker of myths and clairvoyants Stanley Crawford (Firth) he's under the guise of Wei Ling Soo, a Chinese conjurer and magician who performs for packed crowds the kind of tricks seen now at birthday parties. But the audiences eat it up and so does Crawford who relishes these "magical" parlor tricks while he simultaneously has little belief in anything beyond the realm of reality. He is an atheist of the highest order, a pragmatic, histrionic sourpuss who never misses a moment to demean the spiritually inclined. But he's also Colin Firth who can never truly be hated; we sense a heart of gold beneath the armor almost immediately. An impromptu visit from old friend and fellow debunker Howard (Simon McBurney) offers Stanley the chance to do what he loves most, proving a beautiful young clairvoyant to be a charlatan.
Whisked away to the French Rivera, Stanley encounters the gorgeous flame-haired medium Sophie Baker (Stone), accompanied by her judgmental mother (Marcia Gay Harden) Sophie has won over the hearts and minds of the wealthy Catledge clan, and at least in Stanley's mind she is simply milking their bank account while feeding them otherworldly falsehoods. The naive matriarch Grace (Jacki Weaver) wishes for Sophie to get in touch with her deceased husband. Her moonstruck, arrogant son (Hamish Linklater) is so smitten he proposes marriage to Sophie almost immediately then proceeds to serenade her with lame ukelele play, when not tempting her with lavish gifts.
Stanley has little to offer but scorn, at least initially, and Allen sets up the dichotomy between his two leads in the starkest possible terms. This is textbook Allen, for the most part, superficially exploring themes he has touched upon in greater detail in far superior movies. In the case of Magic in the Moonlight, Allen gets to ruminate on the idea of something larger, of a life after death. The thought of dying has been such a dark component of Allen's movies that it's refreshing to see him consider it in a larger context. But the way he does it is by rehashing the same ideological arguments over and over, with the crank Stanley frequently at odds with the spirited Sophie. Their battles are fashioned in the cutest way imaginable, of course; in a romantic rainfall, on a lovely scenic drive, or under the haunting stars of a planetarium. All designed to tear away at Stanley's negative resolve, and combined with a few seemingly impossible acts by Sophie, it isn't long before he's questioning everything he ever knew. Is she truly a fraud? The answer to that question isn't as interesting as it would be if the characters weren't so one-dimensional.
While it's a touch creepy to have Firth hitting on Stone who is more than half his age, the pair are immensely likeable and that helps make up for the script's many problems. Firth never quite seems comfortable in the misanthropic role but he and Stone have an unexpected chemistry when the film begins to resemble a true Hollywood romance. Stone is as lively and engaging as ever and the kind of female lead Allen has always favored, which may explain why he's enlisted her for his next film, too. Allen doesn't offer the supporting players much to work with. While I was no big fan of Blue Jasmine like so many others were, that film at least had a sizable number of character actors holding up their share of the load. The same can be said of Allen's most successful recent effort, Midnight in Paris, a film Magic in the Moonlight often seems to be emulating in both style and tenor. Much of that can be attributed to the breathtaking, picturesque visuals by DP Darius Khondji that will have you booking travel to the south of France by the closing credits.
Magic in the Moonlight certainly isn't You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger or the wretched To Rome with Love, but its shortcomings are similar just on a lesser scale. With Allen already working on his follow-up to arrive this time next year, one hopes he is again able to find that magic he has been looking for.