In the late 1920s, a skeptical magician travels to the south of France so he can expose a fraudulent fortune-teller.
Now, that premise may not sound very promising, even with the knowledge that Colin Firth is the magician and Emma Stone is the fortune-teller. Yet in the hands of Woody Allen, who wrote and directed, Magic in the Moonlight proves to be a treat worth tasting, even if the ingredients don’t quite shake out into much more than an ordinary confection.
Allen is a stalwart filmmaker, an enviable island unto himself. He sits alone at his typewriter every year, writes a screenplay, and then directs it. Actors line up to appear in his films. Investors line up to finance his films. It’s an enviable position, but maybe not the best for someone whose creative spark is often spurred by little more than a good idea for a movie — and who then has no one to challenge his vision, and push him into giving the idea more thorough consideration.
When the idea is very good and the execution uplifted by an extraordinary performance, as in last year’s Blue Jasmine, Allen’s best film in 20 years, the “first draft” quality of the script matters less. But Magic in the Moonlight suffers in comparison. The premise suggests a light-hearted, merry little adventure, with a strong whiff of romance to charge up the intentionally flaccid affairs that unfold.
It’s summer, and especially in the south of France nearly 100 years ago, things slow down to a lazy patter. Allen, in key collaboration with Darius Khondji, an ace cinematographer, and Alisa Lepselter, a film editor whose range of experience covers 15 years and almost nothing outside of Allen’s work, delivers a beautiful-looking, wonderfully dawdling picture that, nonetheless, tends to stall out in the course of its telling.
Allen has, once again, made an older man and a younger woman his protagonists. Although, technically speaking, both are involved with others — the doubting Stanley (Firth) lives with a woman his own age who is never seen, and the spirit-bound Sophie (Stone) is dating a wealthy beau her own age — theirs is intended to be a deep attachment, one that should shake each one to their foundations, even as they spend nearly all their on-screen time bantering lightly.
The intended chemistry, however, never manifests itself on screen. Firth, in his early 50s , and Stone, in her mid-20s, make pleasant talk appear quite engaging, yet sparks of a romantic nature never fly between them; they appear to be friendly but never veer toward sexual heat or even sensual warmth. Theirs is a cordial relationship. Without a more tantalizing component to drive things forward, certain extended stretches of the story pass by without engaging the audience on the deeper level that is intended.
What remains is a story of integrity and firm conviction that is broken down, brick by brick, into a tale of amiable belief. It’s entirely agreeable to watch, though it never builds to a compelling tone; this is a minor work by Woody Allen, which means it is still better than most light comedies that have emerged in theaters this year.
The film opens on Friday, August 1, exclusively at Landmark Magnolia and the Angelika Film Center in Plano.