Woody Allen has been making films for close to 50 years, so it goes without saying that his productions run the gamut from masterpieces (The Purple Rose of Cairo, Crimes and Misdemeanors) to instantly forgettable (September, Anything Else). I’m sorry to report that Magic in the Moonlight sits firmly in the latter category. Even the best of us can have an off day, but I still find it fascinating that a filmmaker can immediately follow up a work of art like Blue Jasmine with an offering that is flawed at such a rudimentary level.
As is often the case with his fumbles, Woody starts out with an interesting idea. At the behest of his fellow illusionist colleague, Stanley Crawford (Colin Firth) is invited to the mansion of the Catledge family on the French Riviera to debunk an ethereal young woman named Sophie Baker (Emma Stone) who claims to be a psychic. The family is apparently beguiled by this attractive twenty-something. British Stanley is a celebrated magician who performs in disguise as a Chinese conjuror named Wei Ling Soo. With the exception of the friend who invites him, Howard Burkan (Simon McBurney), no one at the estate is aware of Stanley’s other persona. This then will allow him to observe the clairvoyant and ostensibly expose her as a fraud.
For half the movie, the director has our attention. Colin Firth is enjoyable as this cranky cynic looking to demystify an inscrutable but charming visionary. They banter back and forth. The mood is light, the scenery is pretty and the 1920s milieu is enchanting. As they spend time together, Sophie is able to discern personal details about Stanley’s life and even those of his aunt Vanessa (Eileen Atkins). Incidentally her minor role was my favorite part. At this juncture, Stanley begins to seriously question his deep-rooted rationalism. Then he decides he has feelings for this girl. Sorry. Nope. Not buying it.
These realizations are a complete betrayal of Colin Firth’s character. That this lifelong curmudgeon would all of sudden, fall head over heals in love with a woman he had regarded as a charlatan is a bunch of hooey. Add to this the unsavory fact that he is old enough to be her grandfather and it adds another layer of ick. Who’s Helena Bonham Carter’s love interest going to be in her next film….Justin Bieber? Because their age difference is exactly the same. Everything up until this point is decent. However the story falls apart from there. Then a plot twist is added and the reveal is like deflating a hot air balloon as it rapidly descends back to earth. From then on there is absolutely nowhere for the narrative to go. His comment on faith is by now a Woody Allen cliché. Magic in the Moonlight isn’t the worst Woody Allen film, but it’s 238,855 miles away from being the best.