With an abundant body of work consisting of 47 feature films, Woody Allen has had the opportunity to dipsy-doodle around themes that interest him in movie after movie.
Magic in the Moonlight is the third of his films to explore how humans wrestle with the unknowable. Colin Firth plays celebrated stage illusionist Stanley Crawford -- who bills himself as Oriental magician Wei Ling Soo (but the movie is set in 1928 so no one takes offence). Like Houdini, Stanley has a sideline in debunking spiritualist frauds who employ cheap magic tricks to fleece the gullible.
Stanley's boyhood friend and fellow magician, Howard (Simon McBurney), comes to him with a challenge. The lovely young psychic Sophie Baker (Emma Stone) apparently has her sights set on the Catledge family, shearing mom Grace (Jacki Weaver) of a small fortune to start a psychic institute while stringing along her rich-ninny son Brice (Hamish Linklater), who has already put a marriage proposal on the table.
Stanley is a temperamental stick-in-the-mud, but he evidently does take real pleasure in exposing frauds. A dour empiricist (in the mould of Jose Ferrer's stuffy academic Leopold in A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy), Stanley comes alive with the prospect of exposing Sophie's tricks.
But once he arrives at the posh Catledge family digs in the French Riviera, he finds himself entranced by Sophie, who registers not as a shady operator but as a plucky Yankee entrepreneur. When he finds he cannot debunk Sophie's claims to communicating with the dead, he finds himself falling under her sway. Entanglements, both romantic and philosophical in nature, ensue.
In A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy, Allen gave the benefit of the doubt to the notion that, to paraphrase Shakespeare, there are more things in heaven and earth than were dreamt of in Leopold's fact-based philosophy. But in his dotage, Allen has seemed to come around to Leopold's way of thinking. (This was made evident in his 2010 film You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger.) What interests him even more is the importance of maintaining illusions in the face of grim reality. Think The Iceman Cometh as rom-com.
It makes for a modestly interesting philosophical treatise, but Magic in the Moonlight is decidedly lacking in both romance and comedy.
Firth succeeds too well in tamping down his charm to portray Stanley's cerebral chilliness. That, and the 28-year age gap between him and Stone, makes their pairing not only unlikely but undesirable.
Visually, this is one of Allen's better-looking films -- almost (but not quite) on a par with Gordon Willis's cinematography in Midsummer. Darius Khondji beautifully renders the natural beauty of the C¥te d'Azur and Provence. But for all its period elegance, the callbacks to the 1920s get taken too far with the dialogue, which is filled with clunking exposition that even an actor as masterful as Firth cannot render natural.
The film was clearly meant to be a light farce, as buoyant as a canoe in a pond. Allen's insistence on heaving heavy philosophizing on the vessel inevitably makes it capsize.