Magic Evades Woody Allen In Faint "Moonlight"

“Magic In The Moonlight” pales in comparison to Woody Allen’s recent career highs – “Midnight In Paris” and “Blue Jasmine” – but even removed from the shadow of those works, it’s still a remarkably slight romantic comedy, hard-pressed for laughs and short on personality. Commendably, the film frequently reaches for something higher, delving into thematic territory mostly ignored in the genre, but it routinely comes up with big handfuls of air. Its marginally charming performances and predictably sublime visuals aren’t enough to shroud its afterthought of a screenplay.

In fact, those modest high points actually serve as a spotlight on the dearth of plot, reminding us what Allen is capable of and that we’re being shortchanged. Set in 1928, Emma Stone (“The Amazing Spider-Man”) stars as Sophie, a young, American mystic quickly rising through the ranks of mediums, yet to be debunked. Enter an acerbic, middle-aged Englishman named Stanley (Colin Firth), as in love with logic and reason as he is with himself. As a world-famous conjurer – under the guise of Chinese magician, Wei Ling Soo, complete with makeup and wig – he’s in high demand for exposing fraudulent clairvoyants.

Stanley is quickly summoned to the French Riviera, where the matriarch of a wealthy American family has fallen under Sophie’s spell. Her family is largely troubled by Grace’s regular seances with her late husband, but even more concerned with her son, Brice (Hamish Linklater), and his affection for Sophie. Reduced to a groveling puddle of romantic platitudes and out-of-tune ukelele performances, Brice is on the verge of asking for Sophie’s hand in marriage, promising her a life of wealth and travel.

All of this is deeply appealing to Sophie and her working-class stage mother (Marcia Gay Harden), making Stanley’s arrival – out of character as a mere observer – appropriate kindling for a narrative fire. And there is heat, at first, with Stanley’s disbelief and comabative nature acting as the perfect foil for Sophie’s wide-eyed naivete. But soon Stanley is unable to explain Sophie’s gift, stripped of rational thought, and left to wither similarly to Brice. The film’s second act becomes a slow-motion game of will-they or won’t-they, bereft of conflict and bearing the burden of mismatched leads.

The age difference between Firth and Stone isn’t addressed – and it doesn’t need to be – but uncertainty permeates their onscreen relationship, neither sure of what to make of the other. When the inevitable betrayal comes, the film becomes a half poetic, half wishy-washy illustration of “logic makes perfect sense, except when it doesn’t,” with only one scene between Firth and Eileen Atkins (as Stanley’s Aunt) allowing Woody Allen’s keen sense of self to peek through. As Firth over-explains his feelings, Atkins delivers deadpan gold, exemplifying the kind of playfulness that the rest of the film lacks.

The illusionist versus spiritualist bent of the story is an interesting one, but Allen fumbles it away on an absurdly marginal romance, one that we can’t – and shouldn’t – care about. The cast is fine, the glowing edges of scenery often picturesque, but it’s a featherweight entry into Allen’s filmography, one made all the more weightless by the intensity of last year’s “Blue Jasmine.” Woody Allen devotees might appreciate the piece as a fleeting glimpse into the bizarre personal life of its creator, but mainstream audiences should pay no mind to “Magic In The Moonlight.”

J. Olson

Rating: ★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Mediocre)

Release Date: July 25, 2014 (Limited)
Studio: Sony Pictures Classics
Director: Woody Allen
Screenwriter: Woody Allen
Starring: Eileen Atkins, Colin Firth, Marcia Gay Harden, Hamish Linklater, Simon McBurney, Emma Stone, Jacki Weaver, Erica Leerhsen, Catherine McCormack, Paul Ritter, Jeremy Shamos
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for a brief suggestive comment, and smoking throughout)