“Magic in the Moonlight” is a Woody Allen throwaway. Which is to say, it’s a recap of past Allen films, rearranged freshly. Anyone expecting anything on the qualitative level of “Blue Jasmine,” in other words, needs to be told that the fellow at 78 seems to be resting a bit this time and enjoying some occupational time spent in Southern France. It would certainly beat, for instance, making a film in present-day West Texas.
I like Allen’s throwaways. They’re short, undemanding and nothing if not familiar. They’re cinematic comfort food, Allen style. Very little is required of us in the audience other than recognizing some niceties in writing and in performance. In this one, he has returned to yet another cinematic variation on “love, your magic spell is everywhere” played out in gorgeous sunlight among people who can’t wait to define themselves and others with a maximum of writerly eloquence.
In particular, that applies to our 1920s hero, a very successful magician named Stanley who performs his act in Chinese garb and makeup under the name Wei Ling Soo. No one knows, then, that as Stanley, he’s a busy scoffer and skeptic devoted to a vigorous appreciation of his own genius and an equally vigorous debunking of the claims of psychics and spiritualists wherever he can find them.
So far, so good. Allen, bless him, does love his vintage low-level showbiz, and ever since Harry Houdini started going after spiritualists and psychics in the 1920s, magicians have heeded the occupational call and followed suit for many years. The Amazing Randi in our time was particularly eager to find frauds among spiritual and supernatural exploiters of the gullible.
Colin Firth plays the perfectionist virtuoso magician, attentive to every rhythmic beat when he disappears an elephant or reappears himself across an empty stage.
He asks the accompanying orchestra to play the gaudiest classics – Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring,” Ravel’s “Bolero,” the scherzo from Beethoven’s Ninth – and is practically ready to go to war over the slightest rushed tempo.
He’s engaged to a beautiful woman of near-perfect intelligence and disinterest in making any demands on him at all.
But a boyhood friend and fellow magician comes to him with a problem. It seems there’s a spiritualist among the monied folks in the south of France who’s been making contact with the dead, holding seances and such and the skeptical magician and friend has been studying every one of them. He can’t figure out for the life of him how she’s doing it all. Could she possibly be real?
So he asks his friend, the magician super-sleuth and super-skeptic to check her out. Which he does, while making a nice side trip to his beloved Aunt Vanessa.
The young spiritualist is played by Emma Stone. Nobody ever said that Allen’s throwaways aren’t cannily cast.
All of this then gives Allen’s Iranian cinematographer Darius Khondji a boatload of chances to show us the sun-drenched beauties of life among the wealthy in the South of France.
If you belong to the group of lifelong Allen film watchers and are now more than a little sick of his snobberies, social and otherwise (not to mention what has become an astoundingly unimaginative use of vintage recorded jazz), you’ll be full of your own savage skepticism here.
Luckily, Allen has given all his movie’s best lines to an actor – Firth – who can not only handle them, but can up the octane on most of them. British actors get Allen – Michael Caine, Anthony Hopkins, Firth. Nobody has to tell them how to deliver his lines with vinegar intact.
The trouble with the film is that our ultra-cynical anti-hero spends too much of it as a believer in love’s magic spell, thereby surgically removing all of Firth’s bilious sarcasm, which is far and away the best part of the film.
You don’t have to be much of a psychoanalyst to figure out why, once again, our hero has to go through a public embarrassment. It’s a story Allen knows by heart so as long as we’re throwing things into films, why not?
Lest all of this seem like an unusually literate and landscaped version of 1920s theater, please take a minute to give your deepest heartfelt sympathy to actor Hamish Linklater who has, in the movie, one of the most humiliating roles of 2014 – a lovestruck upper-class twit who is constantly serenading the heroine as drippily as possible while accompanying himself on the dreaded ukelele. You’ve seen him on TV in “The Crazy Ones” and “The Newsroom” where he usually plays smart, verbal and promising young fellows.
After a role like this one, I’d say Allen owes him one. If ever a fellow had earned a good, juicy role in an Allen film, I’d say Linklater has.
"Magic in the Moonlight"
Starring: Colin Firth, Emma Stone, Eileen Atkins, Marcia Gay Harden, Hamish Linklater
Director: Woody Allen
Running time: 97 minutes
Rating: PG-13 for smoking and suggestiveness.
The Lowdown: A great magician in the 1920s travels to the South of France to expose a charismatic medium.