Those of us waiting for Woody Allen’s return to nostalgia after “Midnight in Paris,” fans who figure his love of 1920s “Hot Jazz” and theatrical, dated dialogue make him most at home with period pieces, are in for something of a letdown with “Magic in the Moonlight.”
This year’s Woody is a ’20s romance set in the sunny, summery south of France, a world where every mansion is perfectly preserved, every open-top Alfa Romeo roadster is immaculately restored and every linen suit or flapper dress flawlessly recreated.
But the comedy set in that world is an almost painfully slight and parched farce that toys with the debate of childish faith in the supernatural and religion versus the dull tragic reality of life. It’s not a bad film, just lifeless.
Colin Firth is Stanley, who makes his living in heavy makeup as the Chinese conjurer Wei Ling Soo. When he isn’t making elephants disappear from a stage in 1928 Berlin, he debunks charlatans and frauds, people who pass themselves off as mediums, and those who believe in the occult or the power of prayer.
But even though the vain, egomaniacal and ever-smirking Stanley has “all the charm of a typhus epidemic,” he does have a friend among his peers. Howard (Simon McBurney) shows up backstage and talks Stanley into coming to the Cannes coast, where Howard thinks this new American medium might be the real thing.
Stanley, who believes in nothing, is challenged by this pale, wide-eyed waif (Emma Stone’s Sophie), who seems to have the gift she claims. When a seance doesn’t unmask her, Stanley takes her on long walks, lovely drives to visit his aunt (Eileen Atkins of “Doc Martin”), rainy afternoons that end in an astronomical observatory.
Allen is, of course, repeating himself. That last bit is borrowed from “Manhattan.” The deep philosophical debate here was a big part of his ’70s and ’80s films, and the mismatch in ages — the dashing Firth paired up with the more-girlish-than-ever Stone, who looks half his age — also conjures up memories of “Manhattan.”
“Magic” lacks too many things to rank among Allen’s better recent films — the come-uppance and zeitgeist currency of “Blue Jasmine,” the frivolity of that don’t-think-too-much-about-this lark “Midnight in Paris.” But the biggest shortcoming is right there in the title, a tease if ever there was one.
Where’s the “Magic”?
— Roger Moore, MCT
‘Magic in the Moonlight’
Starring: Colin Firth, Emma Stone, Marcia Gay Harden, Hamish Linklater, Eileen Atkins, Simon McBurney. (A brief suggestive comment and smoking throughout)