Seeing a new Woody Allen film in the theater has been a yearly ritual for so long it’s natural to go in with high expectations and setting aside the misgivings left over from the occasional misses among the hits. Magic in the Moonlight, unfortunately, now joins Mr. Allen’s small collection of misses. Thankfully in this, his 45th feature-length film as director, we are spared the Woody Allen surrogates of recent years and we get Emma Stone being mostly Emma Stone (though at times her facial expressions and enunciation can feel a bit too contemporary for the 1928-set film) and Colin Firth inhabiting the British upper crust that fits him like a glove in a story about Stanley (Firth), a celebrated magician traveling to the south of France to debunk Sophie (Stone), a young psychic allegedly attempting to bilk a wealthy naïve widow longing to connect with her dead husband.
The film opens on a whimsical note with Mr. Firth’s magician in Asian make-up complete with Fu-Manchu mustache on stage in Berlin making an elephant disappear and performing other staged tricks for a rapt audience. Afterwards he is approached by an old friend (Simon McBurney) who tells him of Sophie, whose talents as a medium are apparently impressively convincing. Off to France they go, the dyspeptic Stanley nearly rubbing his hands together in glee in anticipation of un-masking the fraud. The French countryside provides stunning scenery and, as usual with Mr. Allen, the film’s pacing, framing, editing and camera work seem effortless. The sets and props are seductive and the use of period music is mostly entrancing although the choice of a snippet of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony for a heavy scene feels, well, heavy-handed.
In fact, much of the film is heavy-handed and filled with dialogue that is more often than not expository. Characters are constantly telling each other what they think and feel, allowing for virtually no subtext or subtlety. Despite a theme concerned with, ultimately, the existence of God, the film never delves beneath its glossy surface. Mr. Allen has often mined the after-life for humor, poking fun at life’s meaning in Love and Death (1975) and presenting a memorably blunt assessment of how Jesus would react to contemporary society in Hannah and Her Sisters (1986). But in Magic in the Moonlight there is no winking at the camera and few real laughs. And the about-face Firth’s character makes, falling in love with Stone’s con artist after dismissing any kind of affection for her feels too convenient, leading, disappointingly though not unexpectedly, to the moment when they kiss, which comes off as forced and only highlights the glaring age difference between the two actors (28 years).
In the end, Magic in the Moonlight feels rushed and, as with the few other of Mr. Allen’s failed comedies (Curse of the Jade Scorpion, 2001, and Whatever Works, 2009, come to mind), a film that is enjoyable to a degree as a work of entertainment but disappointing in its weightlessness given the talent, themes and resources involved. Such disappointment can morph into irritation, given the many classics Mr. Allen has produced over the years. We enter into this particular audience-filmmaker relationship knowing that this is the writer/director who gave us Annie Hall, Broadway Danny Rose, Radio Days and, just last year, the startling Blue Jasmine. So take what pleasure you can from the visuals and hang on to the hope that Mr. Allen, an amateur magician in his youth, will pull a true magic trick from his sleeve next time.