There’s a scene near the conclusion of Woody Allen’s latest trifle, Magic in the Moonlight, that recalls the filmmaker’s finest work in its fusion of earnest philosophical inquiry and black, self-effacing comedy. Following the involvement of his beloved aunt in a potentially fatal car accident, renowned magician and die-hard skeptic Stanley Crawford (Colin Firth) tries to invoke God’s mercy through prayer in a moment of solitude and desperation. Despite his clear unfamiliarity with the ritual, Stanley summons as much sincerity as he can for his appeal, but throws up his arms in disgust just at the moment when he seems to believe his own words, proceeding to half-jokingly castigate himself for such out-of-character weakness and folly. Elegantly performed by Firth and captured in a single take by master cinematographer Darius Khondji, it’s a moment straight out of Crimes and Misdemeanors in its seesawing between indignation and aspiration, bitter certainty and terrified hope. The simultaneous maturity and vulnerability present here is otherwise absent in Magic in the Moonlight, a film of obvious characterizations and even more obvious plot machinations that render its moment-to-moment charms moot.
Obviousness is to some extent the point of Magic in the Moonlight, which doesn’t merely wax nostalgic about its 1920s France setting, a la Midnight in Paris, but rather resembles an artifact of the period itself. In plot and visual vernacular, it’s a doppelganger for the proto-screwball romantic comedies of Hollywood’s Golden Age, and the result is an easy-to-swallow piece of confectionary cinema. Stanley is in the south of France at the behest of his friend and fellow magician, Howard (Simon McBurney), who has sought his assistance in debunking the psychic claims of Sophie Baker (Emma Stone), a young American woman whose talents (and beauty) allowed her to ingratiate herself into a wealthy American family. That Sophie and Stanley will embark on a sweet-and-sour romance is a given; the meat of the film lies in the series of existential crises Sophie triggers in Stanley as he grows increasingly nonplussed by her extrasensory powers. Long before he falls for Sophie herself, he’s seduced by what she represents: the possibility of an unseen spiritual world, a balm for his cantankerous atheism. Considering that as a character Stanley is hardly fleshed out beyond the word “skeptic,” these swift changes of heart are a bit baffling to behold, and it’s hardly surprising that it’s Stanley, not the sprightly Sophie, who resembles the fool of the relationship by film’s end.
If Stanley’s characterization is too rigid, Sophie’s is just the opposite, as her entire personality vacillates wildly according to the demands of each scene, particularly in the film’s final third, once the aura of mystery attached to her psychic abilities has dissipated. Ping-ponging between declarations of love for Stanley and a steadfast commitment to marry her wealthy, foppish suitor, Brice (Hamish Linklater), she resembles a plot device more than she does an indecisive, love-struck young woman; her rapid changes of mind and heart are baldly designed to provoke the maximum amount of anxiety out of Stanley. She’s an all-surface creation, with Stone’s moonish features worshipped by suitor(s) and camera alike. As he did with Marion Cotillard in The Immigrant, Khondji synthesizes a strategy of period recreation by lighting Stone as though she were a bygone movie star. If Cotillard’s monochrome martyrdom was a nod to Falconetti in The Passion of Joan of Arc, Stone is given the Carole Lombard treatment, but while the actress sells this impossible character as best she can, there’s no mistaking Magic in the Moonlight for an Ernst Lubitsch or a Gregory La Cava.