Magic in the Moonlight is the sort of Woody Allen movie that longtime fans have trouble defending, not because it's terrible or lazy—it's neither—but because it's so painfully familiar. Likeable and completely disposable, his new comedy has its chuckles, but as he gets closer to the 50-feature mark, this joins his collection of mere baubles that don't do anything freshly enough. There's always pleasure in returning to the man's annual meditations on mortality, fate, and the search for meaning. But this one is minor to a fault.
The setup is especially creaky. Stanley (Colin Firth), a beloved magician living in the late 1920s, travels from Berlin to the south of France to clandestinely investigate Sophie (Emma Stone), a young woman who claims to have psychic abilities. A world-class cynic and misanthrope, Stanley moonlights as a debunker of self-described mystics, smugly exposing them as frauds and, in the process, proving that the natural world is all we have. He's a magician, in other words, who doesn't believe in magic.
One needn't be clairvoyant to guess that snotty, British Stanley and guileless, American Sophie—to drive home her lack of sophistication, Allen makes her from Kalamazoo—will be an oil-and-vinegar combination until feelings start to bubble up for both of them. It's also fairly easy to guess that their sparring will be about more than whether she's actually communicating with the dead or seeing people's dark secrets. No, Magic in the Moonlight, like plenty of great Woody Allen movies, is about the things that people cling to in order to find purpose in life. Stanley dismisses those who believe in God or the occult as simpleminded morons—he's quite content putting his faith in science and reason. (But because he so enjoys popping other people's balloons, maybe his faith isn't so secure?) As for the sweet, ethereal Sophie, she can't explain how she has this strange power, but she trusts it—and she's happy for the comfort it brings the people around her.
Plenty of Allen's recent movies are variations on earlier efforts, and that can be their great strength, showing how the filmmaker has reconsidered a particular idea 10 years later, or what a certain kind of Allen stand-in can be like when played by someone as dashing as Firth. (Magic is another of his 21st-century films immeasurably aided by the fact that the writer-director doesn't act in it. This light, pleasant wisp of a film would tip over from his uber-nebbish shtick.) But this time it never really gets out of the starting block: It's almost entirely a revisit of past themes without a clever hook or striking new character to mix up the formula.
Plus, it continues his recent habit of taking actors you normally enjoy and not doing nearly enough with them. Firth gets to show off his dryly comedic side, although thankfully he's not playing an Allen-like quipster—instead, Stanley is the perpetually arrogant grump, a largely humorless man who's funny because he's not funny at all. But while Firth is game, this isn't a good fit: The actor's preternatural charm keeps getting in the way, undercutting the fact that the character ought to be a bit of a bastard. (He's not a wonderfully terrible person like Sean Penn was in Sweet and Lowdown.)
Stone is even worse off. Forty years ago, Sophie would have been played by Diane Keaton, and 30 years ago she would have been played by Mia Farrow, that sort of wide-eyed innocent Allen loves to consistently needle until his main character decides that, deep down, he loves her. But Sophie doesn't have enough edge—we sense we're not supposed to trust her, but Stone is a little too blank in the role. (That's a shame considering that her gift is usually her nimble, smart-ass expressions, her ability to clue you in on her character's wise-beyond-their-years cynicism.) And while other reviews have complained that the actors' age difference makes their burgeoning attraction icky, I find that less problematic than Allen's inability to make the characters romantically compatible. (It's not that Firth and Stone don't have any sexual chemistry: It's that, for most of the film, they don't behave as if their characters are falling in love. That development seems to surprise the actors even more than the characters.)
About halfway through, Stanley begins to believe that Sophie is the real deal, which profoundly changes his worldview—although, amusingly, not his arrogant demeanor, which is the film's best joke. But even then, the film doesn't go anywhere that surprises us, despite a final plot twist. At 78 and still doggedly making a movie a year, Woody Allen can't wow us every time, and there is a smooth, elegant competency to Magic in the Moonlight that's relatively diverting. But longtime Allen fans know that this is the sort of effort his detractors pinpoint when they complain that he makes too many movies too quickly. Most of the time, we can shout the naysayers down. This time, they're probably right.
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