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 1920s 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 takes the challenge. He will observe this Sophie (Emma Stone), her stage mother (Marcia Gay Harden) and the wealthy, “gullible dupes” (Hamish Linklater, Jacki Weaver) she seems to be conning. And he will expose her.
But Stanley, “who believes in nothing,” is challenged by this pale, wide-eyed waif, 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”), and 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 1970s and ’80s films, and the mismatch in ages – the dashing Firth paired up with the more-girlish- than-ever Emma Stone, who looks half his age – also conjures up memories of “Manhattan.”
But “Magic” is not without its charms. Linklater, of TV’s “The New Adventures of Old Christine,” croons love songs and (apparently) plays the ukulele as his scion of wealth courts the charmed but reluctant Sophie. Stone, staring into the distance as Sophie gets her “mental vibrations” going about this person or that “spirit,” makes an engaging muse for a filmmaker who has had many of those.
But Firth, summoning up his snobbish Mr. Darcy of the distant past, isn’t helped by the timing of the scenes or slack pace of the picture. Allen can only get away with his dissertations on Nietzsche when the movie surrounding them is sprightly, light on its feet. Even the jazz club scenes are stiff and stale, the music sounding more like old 78s from Allen’s record collection than something the musicians on screen are playing.
We don’t really buy Firth as the great cynic here any more than we accept his abrupt “eye-opening” transformation into a convinced, and perhaps smitten, doubter.
“Magic” lacks too many things to rank among Allen’s better recent films – the comeuppance 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”?