Magic in the Moonlight takes place on the French Riviera during the 1920s. Colin Firth is Stanley Crawford. He takes a break from his famous far-eastern illusionist persona, Wei Ling Soo, to unmask an alleged clairvoyant. It is his specialty. After all, he is a man of reason. “The only supernatural power wears a black robe,” he says. The clairvoyant is Sophie Baker (the always charming Emma Stone). She is a woman of optimism and mysticism. Woody Allen’s pen seems to be failing him, as the depth of the two leads goes no further.
Twenty-five years ago Allen himself would have played Crawford. He’s a cynical neurotic with the signature dose of Allen “wit” on the side. Firth inhabits the role with conviction but overcooks it a bit, delivering frail dialogue with a stiffness and lack of fluidity that plagues most exchanges in the film. With last year’s Blue Jasmine, where Allen sunk his teeth into a character and followed her around, dropping in unique and colorful characters to accompany her. A year later and the workman director seems to be content writing cardboard cut-outs and hopelessly forcing talented actors to bring them to life. There are flashes of magic here. After a lifetime of romantic comedies one would hope Allen, even on autopilot, could concoct brilliant and kinetic scenes between his leads.
Fortunately there are a few moments of “magic” here. The movie takes a (slight) break from its tiring back and forth between reason and mysticism when Sophie and Stanley, after a gorgeous drive through hills, seek shelter from a downpour in a closed observatory. Reality versus illusion finally takes the back seat and the characters are finally allowed a real conversation that doesn’t feel stiff with Allen’s dialogue barrage of half-baked themes. Even so the moment is bittersweet; it’s not for lack of trying from Stone or Firth but Allen has failed to cast, write, or direct a leading duo with much chemistry.
As the running time moves on the writing continues to suffer, and the pleasing flashes are fewer. Allen shoe-horns in a love (“magic,” as Stanley’s lively Aunt Vanessa calls it) out of left field. What true character there was to Crawford remains unchanged. There was never enough to Stone’s character to change period. The pinkish, romantic hue of the cinematography is pleasant, and makes the hillsides of France beautiful and surreal, but even in its best moments it feels distinctly pedestrian for Allen. Everything here the director has done before, and he has done it better. One wonders if the French Riviera enticed Allen into making the film. It’s a shame the location’s magic inspired such meager creation.