After making a detour in San Francisco to help Cate Blanchett strike gold at last year’s Oscars, Woody Allen kicks off another leg of his European tour with Magic in the Moonlight. Borrowing the magical realist conceit along with the backdrop of Midnight in Paris, and cherry-picking just a hint of the class commentary from Blue Jasmine, Magic in the Moonlight is less a culmination of Allen’s recent output than it is a jazzy riff on the same stories and ideas that have occupied him for the better part of a decade. While the film makes clear that Allen has played these same beats for pretty much all they’re worth by now, the fresh-faced cast and comforting familiarity of Magic in the Moonlight liven up its well-rehearsed routine.
Looking to the future with as much anxiety as Midnight in Paris looked to the past with nostalgia, Magic in the Moonlight sees its 78 year-old writer-director grappling with the mysteries of life after death the only way he knows how: a romantic farce. The Allen insert de jour is Stanley (Colin Firth), a big-time English magician, and even bigger egotist known better by his stage identity, The Great Wei Ling Soo. Wielding a prosthetic Fu Manchu mustache and bald cap, Stanley dedicates himself to keeping pretend magic and real life separate, such that the only thing he loves more than being a fake wizard is debunking anyone who goes around pretending to be the real McCoy.
Tempted by a fellow illusionist to expose a young spiritualist grifting her way through the pockets of the French Riveria’s high society, Stanley jumps at the chance to prove he can outsmart the fraud, and therefore, anybody she’s fooled. With the acidic sarcasm of John Cleese and his own leading man good looks, Firth makes for a charmingly cantankerous know-it-all, thus setting up Emma Stone’s breezy, but sharp Sophie as a terrific foil for the fusspot. The first act of Magic in the Moonlight is a quick-witted but leisurely romp, as Stanley gleefully tears through the upper-crust dolts of the villa housing Sophie, only to be stumped by the seemingly clairvoyant girl herself.
Thanks to Allen’s established fondness for magic both fake and real, the early fun of Magic in the Moonlight comes from approaching Sophie’s talents with the same skepticism as Stanley, just with less confidence that her act is a ruse. For a good long stretch, it seems just as likely that Sophie really is a psychic as it is that she and her mother (an underused Marcia Gay Harden) are just a couple con artists scamming their way into a life of luxury. When the marks happen to be a widow looking to commune with her dead husband (Jacki Weaver), or her lovesick, ukulele-strumming son (Hamish Linklater), it’s entertaining to play along with Sophie’s premonitions whether the hope they offer is false or not.
When the time does come to side with the mystics or the realists though, Magic in the Moonlight becomes, unfortunately, far more ordinary. The combative repartee between Firth and Stone disappears once the screenplay starts taking their relationship down a more traditionally romantic path. There’s a nice twist in seeing Sophie frustrated at Stanley’s obsession with her “gift,” but not her as a person, yet it’s all in service of a rote arc about a rationalist, stick-in-the-mud man learning to be less of a killjoy. There’s also the niggling issue of the massive age gap between the leads, which, unlike Wei Ling Soo, is not an elephant in the room that Allen can make disappear, so he just ignores it.
A few inspired shots spice up the usual assortment of plush villas and lush gardens that Allen backgrounds his talky script with. A conveniently placed parasol saves the camera from a lot of (otherwise beautiful) magic hour glare in one scene, and another sets Sophie and Stanley’s latest match of wits in the spectator lounge of an actual tennis match. In one of the film’s funnier scenes, Stanley’s Aunt Vanessa (Eileen Atkins, getting big results out of a small part) gets him to spill his guts by pulling a cold reader’s trick of asking simple questions that invite revealing answers, all while she’s occupied by a game of solitaire.
It’s a shame that Magic in the Moonlight runs out of things to do with its strong cast and gamely premise so early, as the navel-gazing neurosis of Stanley and Allen’s script overwhelms all eventually. Stanley and Sophie’s zippy early sparring gives way to a back half that’s all too focused on the angst of its one true protagonist, which is played lightly for laughs, and eventually circles back after being explored with little more depth than what a couple Nietzsche quotes will allow. A rapid onset of emotional and existential revelations for the characters amounts to a philosophical pell-mell, and it’s probably for the best that the film end as abruptly as it does, so as to outpace the audience’s desire for a shepherd’s crook to drag it off stage.
Allen’s vision of the ‘20s at maximum roar gives Magic in the Moonlight a lot of flavor, as it’s hard not to get swept up in the freewheeling fun of all the hot jazz and decorative fashion. Even with some new players at his disposal though, the vibes of déjà vu from Allen’s recent work keep Magic in the Moonlight from ever staying too many steps ahead of you. As Stanley himself notes, a magician who does the same trick over and over is less likely to fool their audience, so it’s probably time Allen tried his hand at a new trick. For now though, Magic in the Moonlight has enough spark to make you appreciate it as the work of an old pro, even if what you were really hoping for was to be hoodwinked.
Magic in the Moonlight is an act you’ve seen before, but a strong cast led by Colin Firth helps dress up the mostly routine effort from Woody Allen.