If Magic in the Moonlight were made by any other filmmaker than Woody Allen, it would probably seem like a perfectly agreeable romantic comedy. It stars Colin Firth playing a rendition of his trademark role, the charming curmudgeon, or you know, Mr Darcy, and features a plethora of clever one-liners and lovely 1930s costumes, especially the dresses. It even takes place in the south of France, which, as shot by Darius Khondji is a gorgeous garden, where a shot of the very blue sea is only improved by watching the protagonists drive past it in a bright red old-fashioned convertible. But it’s harder to let this essentially one-joke film, which is populated by caricatures, slide when we’re used to so much better. Even Allen’s weaker, recent films, like When in Rome, showed more psychological insight than this frivolous new film.
Firth plays Stanley, a renowned magician, whose stage persona is a Chinese man who goes by Wei Ling Soo. We first meet him in Berlin, mesmerizing an audience with a magic trick, and then we see him go backstage and immediately start spouting, albeit funny, vitriol: “autographs are for mental defectives.” When his friend Howard (Simon McBurney) arrives to see him, he refers to Stanley as “a genius with all the charm of a typhus epidemic.” Needless to say that when the handsome Colin Firth is playing him, even his vile and misanthropic behaviour still has its charms.
Howard is there to enlist his friend’s help with unmasking a young woman’s ability to read minds and communicate the dead as phony. The woman is Sophie (Emma Stone), who has fooled a rich American matriarch, Grace (Jacki Weaver), and her lovesick son, Brice (Hamish Linklater), and seems to have even taken in the usually skeptical Howard, who was initially summoned to do the job he wants Stanley to complete. Howard’s purpose is revealed all too predictably over a pedestrian dinner conversation that might as well have “expository scene” written on a title card before it.
With this simple premise laid out, we head to France with Stanley, where we meet an amusing cast of two-dimensional eccentrics: Grace’s psychoanalyst son (Jeremy Shamos) who can’t help coming up with silly psychoanalytical insights about everyone he meets; the ambitious stage mom to Sophie (Marcia Gay Harden); and the no-nonsense British aristocrat with a dry wit, Stanley’s Aunt Vanessa (Eileen Atkins). Aunt Vanessa is the most charming, but even though the rest are such silly exaggerations you surrender yourself to the ride.
Firth’s commanding screen presence makes Stanley compelling even though he’s constantly repeating the same condescending rational views about how he’s a man of science, and how the spirit world is preposterous chicanery. Allen, who, of course, wrote the screenplay, finds a wide variety of clever ways to tell the same joke, which really ought to have played out over the course of twenty minutes, instead of ninety. As such tales require, Stanley finds himself softening to the young American’s charms – and pretty face – to the point that he starts to become convinced that her “gift” might be real.
Firth and Stone make a charming screen couple, although I felt squeamish about their burgeoning May-December romance throughout. It’s one thing to have lusted over Firth’s Mr Darcy from afar since I was twelve; it’s another to be confronted with this older version falling for someone exactly my age. Sophie is always holding her hands up in front of her, as if to touch someone’s aura to read the person or the future. Her insights about Stanley are good – too good – such that when he becomes excited about her gift, she desperately wonders if he likes anything about her aside from her gift. Sadly, the more it seems like she might be a fake, the less interesting she becomes: layers of nuance are stripped away rather than added.
Much of the film is spirited, which is why when some of the scenes go on too long or slow too much, it’s glaring. Stanley has a couple of long monologues that lead to an epiphany – one pacing around a hospital and one sitting stagnantly at a table with his Aunt – both of which feel dead and forced, not least because the camera barely moves. Usually, Allen’s observational camera work is a blessing, letting the acting unfold unadulterated. But here, when the material is already so thin, and drawn out until it tears from the stretch, what’s dead on the page becomes dead on screen, too.
So here’s the thing: I laughed throughout, though it was mostly modest chuckling rather than uproarious laughter. The setting and the clothing are gorgeous, and the film has some genuinely good one-liners. But the film still feels empty. Like a single drop of fine wine, Magic in the Moonlight may be delightful going down, but you’ll wish you could have more.