Woody Allen has made some real stinkers over the course of his 50-year career, and though “Magic in the Moonlight” isn’t quite bad enough to be included among the director’s absolute worst films, it’s not very good either. Allen’s movies have always been pretty hit-and-miss, but since 2005’s career-altering “Match Point” – in which he inadvertently became a foreign film director by working almost exclusively in Europe – he’s only made three legitimately great movies. But while Allen has proven that he’s still capable of delivering a good film on occasion, he seems more concerned with maintaining his yearly output no matter what the cost, and that quantity-over-quality way of thinking only underlines the problems with his latest comedy.
Set in the late 1920s, the movie opens in a Berlin theater during a performance of world-renowned magician Wei Ling Soo. But just like the magic tricks in his show, it’s all a ruse. Wei Ling Soo isn’t Chinese at all, but rather the terribly racist stage persona of grumpy and arrogant Englishman Stanley Crawford (Colin Firth). He’s an elitist at heart who despises charlatans that give his profession a bad name, so when his longtime friend Howard Burkan (Simon McBurney) asks for his assistance in debunking a young spiritualist named Sophie Baker (Emma Stone), whom he believes is scamming the heir of the wealthy Catledge family, Stanley is all too happy to oblige. The pair heads to the Catledges’ mansion on the French Riviera in order to observe Sophie in action and catch her red-handed, but against his better judgment, Stanley begins to believe that she’s the real deal.
There’s been a lot of discussion about how Allen’s proclivity toward May-December relationships mirror his own personal life, and quite frankly, it’s getting a bit exhausting watching the director indulge his fantasy of beautiful young women falling in love with older men, especially now that he’s no longer playing the lead in his films. It doesn’t help that there’s zero romantic chemistry between Firth and Stone, and that proves to be a major problem, since so much of the movie depends on their playful interactions with one another. Both actors are usually very charming, but they look hopelessly lost in their roles due to a half-baked script that just goes around in circles for 98 minutes. Firth’s patronizing skeptic is more irritating than comical and Stone’s mystic is given very little depth. Hamish Linklater fares even worse as the doofus rich boy trying to win Sophie’s affection, while the rest of the cast (save for Eileen Atkins, who’s actually quite good as Stanley’s prudent aunt) is easily forgettable.
Everything about this movie seems like it was rushed, from the stupid title, to the horrible poster, to the uninspired direction by Allen, who fails to provide an engaging story beyond the initial premise. The cinematography by Darius Khondji is gorgeous, as is the lush backdrop of Southern France, but even that can’t save the story at the center of it from being so dull. “Magic in the Moonlight” doesn’t make you believe in magic, or love, or anything, really, although maybe that’s just the cynic in me, eager to expose the film as the fraud that it is, because the whole thing feels less like a genuine Woody Allen comedy (smart and funny with a healthy dash of neurosis) than a pale imitation.