Woody Allen has put out at least one movie a year, every year, since 1982. He’s damn prolific, more than any other major filmmaker working today, but after Adam Sandler recently admitted his films are basically paid vacations, it’s plain to see the same is true for Allen. Several of his recent films take place in posh European cities (e.g. London, Rome, Barcelona, and Paris). He always finds an excuse for a scene where a jazz band gets together to perform his favorite type of music (Allen plays jazz clarinet). There’s nothing wrong with combining work and pleasure – some of the European-set Allen films are the best he’s done – but his formula is downright annoying where there is not enough material to sustain a sketch, let alone a feature film. Set primarily in the French Riviera, Magic in the Moonlight is Allen’s worst film since You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, one that confirms the ickiest part of his longtime obsessions.
Allen’s hero is Stanley (Colin Firth), a middle-aged genius magician whose on-stage persona is a racist Chinese caricature (the film is set in 1928, so the Charlie Chan-esque make-up is OK, I guess). Stanley’s friend Howard (Simon McBurney) visits after one performance, and offers a tantalizing proposal: he wants Stanley to stay in a chateau in the south of France, one where a wealthy American family is taken with a medium. She can see into the past and perform séances, and since Stanley is an expert debunker, he delights at the opportunity to expose a charlatan.
The medium’s name is Sophie, and since she’s played by Emma Stone, she’s charming, funny, and easy on the eyes. She considers a marriage proposal from Brice (Hamish Linklater), a fool who writes her songs on the ukulele, while Allen forces a bond between Stanley and Sophie based on nothing but transparently lazy romantic contrivances and stilted dialogue.
Colin Firth is a terrific actor, one who knows how to play an utter snob, so there are parts where he elevates Stanley’s lines beyond the typical Allen misanthrope. Aside from the trouble that Allen revisits this character routinely – notably with Larry David in Whatever Works – there’s not enough plot or supporting characters to justify Stanley’s annoyance with, well, everyone. Brice is his only victim we see in the flesh, and he’s so underwritten Allen cannot justify Stanley’s negative feelings toward him. I realize that Allen is somewhat critical of Stanley, including a mild rebuke of his stubborn worldview, but he finds enough sympathy in him that the cumulative effect is off-putting.
What’s worse, and downright creepy, is the relationship that develops between Stanley and Sophie. As with Firth, Stone is a perfect casting choice precisely because she oozes charisma and star power. It is easy to see why she’s such an effective medium – her cartoonish, large eyes are beautiful and inviting – but a budding romance is much more difficult to pull off than medium/mark dynamic. Aside from the obvious fact the unacknowledged age difference between Firth and Stone is substantial (she’s 28 years his junior), there is little chemistry between them. Allen’s script includes a defense of the unknowable and the power of love, yet the words are oddly empty since character behavior has little to do with what they’re meant to feel. Two regrettable things compound the poorly-conceived romance: Allen again condescends to a woman by having the man force “serious” literature on her, and when they do finally kiss, my immediate reaction was to recoil at the awkwardness. This is the work of man who looked at half-baked script that he was keeping in a desk drawer and thought, “I hear Provence is lovely this time of year, anyway.”
The mystery of Magic in the Moonlight is whether Sophie is a real medium, or whether she’s just really clever. Allen does not necessarily shy away from the supernatural – The Purple Rose of Cairo notably indulges in fanciful escapism – yet the solution for the plot’s puzzle is easy just based on the economy of characters. It’s not a huge deal to figure out the plot of a movie (lazy critics relish it), but its shortcomings are acutely felt when the situations and jokes fail to be involving. Allen’s latest has fleeting moments of charm: the irreplaceable Eileen Atkins plays Stanley’s aunt, and their scenes together are the only ones with any emotional truth to them. But for every chuckle or smile, there are several tedious moments where Allen shoves the same tired, dry punchline into a mouth of an otherwise good actor who should probably read their scripts more carefully. Tireless Allen fans might repeat, “There’s always next year,” but Magic in the Moonlight is awful and gross enough so that longtime fans may transition into passionate detractors.