Magic in the Moonlight (2014)
100 min., rated PG-13.
If a notable filmmaker is going to crank out an annual movie—his forty-fourth, to be exact—it is going to come with both high expectations and trepidation. As that filmmaker whose name is Woody Allen puts out another film to stay on schedule, one is glad he remains tireless at work, even if he's not going to win them all. With his loyal-since-1975 casting director Juliet Taylor, he knows how to round up excellent actors, who probably jumped at the chance to work with such a neurotic genius, and write each of them snappy zingers to speak in a distinctly Allen manner. Unfortunately, over the years, even a brilliant filmmaker can have his off days, especially when he's always trying to beat the clock and not miss a year. A minor triviality from the Woodman, "Magic in the Moonlight" is occasionally amusing and fluffily pleasant, but it demonstrably belongs in the "lesser" column. It pains one not to call Emma Stone's first chance to work with Allen a delightful treat but rather a disappointing misfire.
Performing under his kabuki stage name Wei Ling Soo, British illusionist Stanley Crawford (Colin Firth) spends his life on a stage, making an elephant disappear or splitting a female assistant in half. After his latest tour performance in Berlin, he is visited by a fellow magician (Simon McBurney) and enlisted to debunk a fake spiritualist. There's a job for Stanley in the south of France, where a young woman from Kalamazoo, Mich., Sophie Baker (Emma Stone), on holiday with her mother (Marcia Gay Harden), is staying with an old-money family and has them believing she is a clairvoyant spirit medium. The matriarch, Grace (Jacki Weaver), hopes Sophie can connect her with her late husband during a séance, and milquetoast son Brice (Hamish Linklater) is already taken by Sophie. Will the skeptical Stanley prove the likable Sophie to be a fraud, or will she turn him soft and make him fall in love with her instead?
A screwball romantic comedy set in the south of France during 1928, "Magic in the Moonlight" promises to be something magical and whimsical. The tone is jaunty and light as a wisp. The window dressing is sparkling and romantically sun-dappled, as captured by the reliable Darius Khondji's dream photography, particularly in the Gardens of Provence. The cast is a winsome treasure trove of supporting players, especially the forever wonderful Eileen Atkins who's a hoot as Stanley's Aunt Vanessa. So, why does it all feel so flat? The dialogue only sometimes crackles with wit and clangs the rest of the time. The pacing has a noticeable lack of energy, like a lead foot without actually moving much. The lead pairing is fun to watch, at least for a while before the plot machinery moves things headlong to an old-fashioned, "that's-all-you-got?" foregone conclusion.
Fit to play a scoundrel, Colin Firth snaps off bon mots well, and in playing the misanthropic Stanley, he can be hard to resist. For what it's worth, the actor isn't even asked to emulate his director as a surrogate, so that's refreshing. As Sophie, the eternally radiant Emma Stone is winningly adorable as ever, even when the character could be using chicanery on everyone (how she acts out her "mental vibrations/impressions" will turn a frown upside down). Together, there is ease in their verbal wrangling but no traceable chemistry between them. Sure, their age-inappropriate romance is supposed to be of the May-December variety and it might raise eyebrows to Allen detractors (who probably wouldn't be buying a ticket anyway), but it's so transparently contrived, as Stanley and Sophie make more sense as sparring partners than bedmates. It's actually the scenes between Firth and Atkins that own the sharpest and most memorable zest.
Perfectly fine for a hot summer matinee but not really worth changing your schedule around for, "Magic in the Moonlight" is just forgettable and sparkless. Besides looking lovely and sounding like Cole Porter's living room, the film, even for a larkish bon-bon, does provoke a smidge of thought about our faith and certainty about the world. And, if 2013's "Blue Jasmine" was Allen's loose take on Tennessee Williams' "A Streetcar Named Desire," then this might bear a comparison to George Bernard Shaw's "Pygmalion," for those keeping track at home. Not all of Allen's output needs to be great, but "Magic in the Moonlight's" disarming, visually inviting sunniness isn't enough, the story conflict so minor and the whole of the movie carrying such little weight it could blow away like a dandelion. Slight, frothy charm can't always carry the day.