Maybe the reason Woody Allen is so fond of the 1920s and ’30s is that in those days, nobody batted an eye when, say, a 53-year-old man like Colin Firth had a relationship with a 25-year-old woman like Emma Stone. Not so anymore! Nowadays, if a man is 28 years older than his love interest, people wonder about ulterior motives or undue influence. Some people might even find it a little creepy, actually, especially in a Woody Allen movie.
But if Allen has proven anything over the course of his legendary career, it’s that he doesn’t care what anyone thinks. For better or worse — and it’s very often for better — he makes exactly the films he wants to make, idiosyncrasies and all. His latest, “Magic in the Moonlight,” is an airy confection, an almost Oscar Wilde-ian sort of romantic comedy set among the upper classes on the French Riviera in 1928. Haphazardly written, the frivolous film doesn’t make satisfactory use of its excellent stars, and you’ll forget the whole thing the minute it’s over. But those aren’t necessarily reasons not to see it.
Colin Firth is Allen’s surrogate this time. He plays Stanley, a successful English stage magician who’s known for his haughty perfectionism and his ruthless knack for debunking fraudulent spiritualists. It is for the latter skill that he’s summoned by his friend, fellow magician Howard (Simon McBurney), to the south of France to meet Sophie Baker (Emma Stone), an American woman who claims to have legitimate psychic powers.
Managed by her faithful mother (Marcia Gay Harden), Sophia has toured the world beguiling suckers with supposed communications with their deceased loved ones. She has lately captured the attention of Howard’s friend Grace (Jacki Weaver), a gullible widow who misses her husband, and of Grace’s son Brice (Hamish Linklater), who’s smitten with Sophia and woos her with ukulele serenades. Stanley arrives all set to find the hidden strings (literal or figurative) in Sophia’s seances, only to discover that he … he kind of believes her.
Stanley’s sudden conversion from dyed-in-the-wool skeptic to true believer is preposterously abrupt and underwritten — but it also leads us to the part of the movie that is the most fun. Once an imperious stiff, Stanley is now lighthearted, his new belief in the reality of magic having “opened (his) eyes to the joy of living.” He puts his professional reputation on the line by publicly endorsing Sophia as the real deal, a genuine psychic, and a friendship with her blossoms.
He’s not romantically smitten with Sophia yet, but we know it’s inevitable. We know because Allen went out of his way to establish that Stanley has a fiancee (Catherine McCormack), who appears in exactly one (1) clumsily written scene early on whose sole purpose is to establish that she and Stanley are perfectly compatible. This is a bad omen, of course, the rom-com equivalent of a movie cop mentioning that it’s his last day before retirement.
There are fruitful themes lurking here that Allen has simply failed to develop: the notion of happiness being “magical,” the idea that being practical and logical all the time can take the fun out of life, the way atheists and believers often view one another with pity and scorn until they switch sides. A silly story about an illusionist who falls under the spell of a mystic was never going to be the next “Annie Hall,” but surely Allen could have finessed this into something sturdier and more memorable.
Yet for as tossed-off and careless as the film seems, it’s hard to completely discount it. Firth, who sounds amusingly like John Cleese when he gets agitated, and Stone, as charmingly down-to-earth as ever, both light up any screen on which they appear. Though they have precious little chemistry together, even as platonic friends, their natural charisma buoys the film, as do supporting performances by Harden, Weaver, Linklater, and the venerable Eileen Atkins as Stanley’s beloved aunt. Like too many of Allen’s movies, it’s not good enough to recommend, but not bad enough to warn people away, either. Do you have 97 minutes to spare? They will pass pleasantly enough.
C+ (1 hr., 37 min.; )
Originally published at About.com.