According to legendary illusionist Stanley (Colin Firth), “The magician must never repeat his tricks.”
Evidently the film’s director wasn’t listening. For his 44th feature, the mildly diverting romantic comedy “Magic in the Moonlight,” Woody Allen reaches into a bag of the same old tricks.
Often they’re pretty good tricks. Allen is an undisputed master of crafting witty dialogue and strong female characters — as he verified last year with Cate Blanchett’s Oscar-grabbing role in “Blue Jasmine.” He is also unrivaled at recruiting A-list talent to even the most modest projects.
But then there’s Woody’s more annoying gimmicks: Conversations overshadowing actions. Droning monologues about faith versus rationalism. A disdain for anything but the distant past. And, most Woody-ish of all, a movie about a 53-year-old falling in love with a 25-year-old without the slightest mention of their age difference.
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“Magic in the Moonlight” is by no means unwatchable, just flat and familiar. Like the filmmaker may be as tired of his ploys as the viewer.
In Berlin 1928 (a rare appropriate occasion for Allen to use old-timey music in the opening credits), magician Wei Ling Soo dazzles the crowd. He saws a girl in half and makes a live elephant vanish.
Backstage, he removes his Chinese disguise to reveal he’s Stanley, an English master of illusion. Friend and fellow magician Howard (Simon McBurney) arrives with a challenge for the notorious skeptic: Join him in the south of France to help debunk the clairvoyant Sophie (Emma Stone). Howard says he can’t find any trickery in her astounding skills.
“Not another fake psychic. What a pestilence they are,” Stanley scoffs.
But at the Côte d’Azur estate of a wealthy family, where she is conducting seances, Stanley forms a different impression of this “little American gypsy.” Her saucer eyes and winsome smile wear down his resistance, as does the fact she reveals things about his past she could not have known.
Sophie also sees something behind the pompous facade of her harshest critic, describing him as “obnoxious, but he’s not entirely unappealing.”
“Moonlight” could use a little more obnoxiousness in the right places. Allen casts the terrific Firth, who provides the right balance of dashing and condescending. “The King’s Speech” veteran is exemplary at spewing mouthfuls of dialogue with casual ease. He wrings everything he can from lines such as, “A pretty face never hurt a cheap swindler.”
It’s what Allen’s screenplay does with the character that ultimately rings false. At a certain point, Stanley throws out his innate caution and gives in. His conversion to spiritualism is so abrupt and wimpy that it might as well happen off-camera. The story never fully recovers, even if Stanley arrives at a conclusion many viewers will figure out in the first 15 minutes.
Meanwhile, the likable Stone is left with little to do, sharing scant chemistry with her co-star. Standing out more for her perky flapper outfits than her personality, she’s merely a part of the beautiful scenery.
Without a shred of viable romance, this romantic comedy becomes more reliant on humor. But even Stanley’s put-downs are more smirk-inducing than laugh-out-loud funny. All the viewer is left with is a gorgeous film (shot by Darius Khondji of “Amour”) that establishes a convincing sense of time and place.
As for the finale of Allen’s vision, Stanley sums it up best when describing Sophie’s performance during a seance: “the usual theatrical fertilizer.”
‘MAGIC IN THE MOONLIGHT’
Rated PG-13 | Time: 1:37