Review: Magic in the Moonlight

Woody Allen’s wanly whimsical latest is a very minor entry in the prolific director’s string of Europe-set films. A minute after it’s over, you don’t care.

At one point in the American Masters biography Woody Allen: A Documentary that aired on PBS in 2011, the endlessly prolific writer-director empties a box of paper scraps on which he’s jotted down assorted movie ideas over the years; when he finds one he still likes, he explains, he embarks upon his next screenplay. Would that he had tossed aside the “master magician falls in love with the lovely clairvoyant he’s trying to expose” concept that drives the plot of Magic in the Moonlight, a fugacious bit of whimsy that can only be judged minor Woody Allen.

From the 1920s French setting to the dreamily romantic title, this feels like a pale attempt to recapture a portion of the public that made “Midnight in Paris” by far Allen’s biggest hit ever. There’s a reason the film didn’t premiere at Cannes last May, just down the road from where it was shot.

Set in an F. Scott Fitzgerald-esque Cote d’Azur populated by rich Brits and Yanks, this story of an imperious maestro’s plan to cut off an alluring arriviste at the knees could have been filmed in 1935 by George Cukor, Frank Borzage or Gregory La Cava, starred John Barrymore and Carole Lombard and probably would have been the better for it. It certainly would have more comfortably fit the Depression-era zeitgeist, as well as the public’s ready acceptance of fluffy, patently absurd comic premises.

There’s the strangely uneasy shadow of Pygmalion hanging over Magic in the Moonlight. Colin Firth’s Stanley Crawford, Europe’s most celebrated magician, who secretly performs in the guise of a “Chinese” conjuror, is just as arrogant, domineering and ultimately susceptible as Henry Higgins. But he simultaneously enacts the role of Higgins’ nemesis, Karpathy, in his determination to unmask the young woman as a fraud. His high-handed, bombastic nature, combined with a nasty destructive streak, makes Stanley rather unpleasant company altogether.

Stanley is lured to the Riviera by old pal and fellow magician Howard (Simon McBurney), whose friends are currently hosting the red-haired, blue-eyed Sophie Baker (Emma Stone), a young American woman of supposedly unerring clairvoyant powers. Posing as a businessman, Stanley accepts the lavish hospitality of gullible matron Grace Catledge (Jacki Weaver), who is keen to reconnect with her late husband via séances conducted by Sophie.

It’s taken all of three seconds for Grace’s presumptuous son Brice (Hamish Linklater) to decide he will marry Sophie. But while idle, rich Brice serenades the low-born Sophie with insipid ditties on the ukulele, Stanley marvels as the young woman reveals astonishing, nay, impossible powers of insight and deduction that chip away at his malignant desire to prove her a fake. Driving with her along the dirt roads lining the coast and, in one scene, sheltering her from the rain in the magnificent, 127-year-old Nice Observatory (designed by Gustave Eiffel, as in Tower), Stanley begins to fall for Sophie.

Lushly shot on film and in widescreen by Midnight in Paris DP Darius Khondji, sumptuously decked out with period costumes by Sonia Grande and upper-crust settings by production designer Anne Seibel and awash in upbeat period ditties on the soundtrack, Magic in the Moonlight does have a not-disagreeable expensive-vacation vibe to it. But the one-dimensional characters are mostly ones you’d want to avoid rather than spend a holiday with.

In most Allen films, such as his last, Blue Jasmine, any number of supporting roles are deftly drawn and linger in the mind. Such is not the case here; as Sophie’s mother, for example, Marcia Gay Harden has absolutely nothing to do, while McBurney’s role is that of a mere facilitator.

With Firth looking uncomfortable most of the time, as if unable to settle upon the precise level of misanthropic disdain to express while still engaging the audience, it’s up to Stone to save the day. She does what she can. Her giant eyes suggesting the possibility that she really can see more than ordinary mortals do, Stone is lively, spontaneous when called upon to peer into the future or past and, appropriately, given Stanley’s difficulty in cracking her nut, hard to read. Maybe too hard, as it’s tough to decide what her game really is and what one wishes for her. Just as George Bernard Shaw felt one way about whether Higgins and Eliza Doolittle should end up together in Pygmalion while most of his stage and screen interpreters have tilted the other way, so is one highly ambivalent about what should happen at the end of Magic in the Moonlight.

But so ephemeral is it all that a minute after it’s over, you don’t care.