Among recent Woody Allen films, the crabby but pretty Magic in the Moonlight is a well-thumbed playing card from the middle of the deck, not one of his fully good ones (Midnight in Paris, Vicky Cristina Barcelona), not one of the whiffs (Cassandra’s Dream, Scoop, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger). The new one’s set in 1928 in the south of France, where people really do seem on the verge of asking, “Tennis, anyone?” every second. Coldblooded British illusionist Stanley, played with a tight grimace by Colin Firth, has been invited by a fellow magician (Simon McBurney) to debunk a celebrated American mystic working her way through the Cote d’Azur.
Unmasking phony spiritualists is Stanley’s offstage specialty, “from the seance table to the Vatican and beyond,” as he says in one of the script’s better lines. Lately the might-be spiritualist Sophie has convinced a wealthy family that she can communicate with the late husband of a credulous widow (Jacki Weaver), whose ukulele-strumming son (Hamish Linklater) has proposed to Sophie, promising her diamonds and love songs all the livelong day.
Then comes a twist, which will be enough for some Allen fans and not quite enough for others. Something happens to persuade the godless skeptic Stanley that Sophie is the real deal. He already thinks she’s the berries, because Emma Stone, who plays her, looks fetching in costume designer Sonia Grande’s hats. Eventually Magic in the Moonlight contrives to strand this odd couple in a rainstorm, (see Manhattan and Match Point for reference, and similarly clingy blouses), and they take refuge in a convenient seaside planetarium, where the stars realign without quite bringing the two together.
With this script, Allen isn’t working in farce mode. It’s more an easygoing nod to W. Somerset Maugham or, in the plot’s Pygmalion-like relationship between a cynical older man and his desired younger female charge, George Bernard Shaw. Firth’s character is a relentless pill, though an occasionally amusing one, thanks largely to Firth’s wiles. (“Obsessed with mortality … believes in nothing … a very unhappy man,” one character says of Stanley. “I like him.”)
Stone is already shooting Allen’s next project, so clearly what she brought to Magic in the Moonlight was enough for the writer-director. I think she’s pretty good, though she could use a few lessons in indirection and subtlety; everything about her, from the voice to the eyes to her brash comic impulses, is effective and engaging but, at this point in her career, somewhat effortful.
The supporting cast, for an Allen ensemble, is typically splendid, with top honors going to Eileen Atkins as Stanley’s imperious, all-knowing aunt. There are moments in Magic in the Moonlight when Allen takes a back seat to his designers and actors, parking his camera like a steamer trunk and simply taking in the scenery. One shot, for example, opens with an actor standing alone in the frame and then turning to his right, exclaiming, “Ah, Miss Baker!” while Stone enters the shot, as if the whole thing were a proscenium stage, lushly tricked out with real Riviera and Provence backdrops.
If Stanley’s conversion from skeptic to believer had been better finessed, the central love story might have a different and more buoyant feeling about it. (Hard to say how much of Stanley’s sourness is shared by the guy who wrote him.)
Allen has acknowledged that he’s a sucker for ’20s clothes, and sets, and cars, and glamorous locations populated by fantasy versions of the rich and famous. Guided by “You Do Something to Me” as its theme song, Magic in the Moonlight strolls along, muttering familiar axioms about the infernal inconvenience and bedevilment of romantic attraction. Shooting his fourth Allen project, cinematographer Darius Khondji bathes everything in gorgeous light; he’s the real star here.
If the result keeps moviegoers of a certain age off the streets and away from And So It Goes, it’ll serve its purpose.
Magic in the Moonlight (PG-13): ★★★✩✩