When a filmmaker has been directing, on average, one film per year for four decades, it is natural to expect that some will be better than others. Even the most passionate fans of Woody Allen's oeuvre would have to agree that the quality of his scripts and value of his output vary wildly from project to project. His pictures can basically be separated into two categories: weighty, character-based dramas and comically barbed balls of fluff and whimsy. Allen is a master of the droll one-liner no matter what he's making, but on the occasions when he is off his game, helming a feature that clearly needed to be further honed and developed before going before the camera, it is dispiriting to think about how he is spinning his wheels on his way to his next great film. At 78, Allen is obviously not as young as he once was, and how long he will be able to keep up with his annual pace is uncertain. 2013's "Blue Jasmine
," punctuated by Cate Blanchett's devastating Oscar-winning performance, joined the ranks of 1977's "Annie Hall" and 1979's "Manhattan" as one of his career bests, so the chances of him repeating such a creatively esteemed success right away were admittedly slim. As thrilling as it would be to announce that the veteran auteur has bucked this longtime trend, it is just not to be. "Magic in the Moonlight" is an inconsequential confection, done in by a rambling, featherweight narrative and the unavoidable miscasting of 53-year-old Colin Firth (2014's "Devil's Knot
") opposite 25-year-old love interest Emma Stone (2014's "The Amazing Spider-Man 2
The year is 1928. British stage magician Stanley Crawford (Colin Firth) is in the midst of a European tour as his kabuki-faced Chinese alias Wei Ling Soo when, in Berlin, he is approached by friend Howard Burkan (Simon McBurney) with a curious proposition. A young lady hailing from Kalamazoo, MI, one Sophie Baker (Emma Stone), claims to be clairvoyant and has taken up residence with a wealthy American family in the south of France. Matriarch Grace (Jacki Weaver) and grown son Brice (Hamish Linklater) have totally bought into her mystical gift, but Howard is sure that if perpetual skeptic Stanley pays them a visit he will be able to prove Sophie is a fraud. Arriving under the false identity of a businessman named Taplinger, Stanley ingratiates himself into Sophie's life, sitting in for séances and witnessing psychic abilities that, no matter how hard he tries, he cannot explain. As a man who has always prided himself on proof and logic, Stanley begins to experience a newfound spiritual awakening as he starts to fall for Sophie's sweet and innocent charms.
"Magic in the Moonlight" is pleasant but meanderingand also decidedly familiar, borrowing story elements from 2001's "The Curse of the Jade Scorpion
" while going so far as to recycle the use of Cole Porter's "You Do Something to Me," previously used by Allen in 1995's "Mighty Aphrodite." Whether Sophie is or isn't a fake is enough to keep the viewer guessing, and the forever fetching Emma Stone is a hoot as the willowy possible psychic, continuously defying Stanley's doubts while helping to soften his misanthropic heart. Colin Firth, however, isn't quite suited for Stanley, the actorand his characterawfully long in the tooth to be romancing ingénues nearly thirty years younger than he. The main objection is not to its May-December relationship, per se, but to the fact that the script never so much as passingly brings up the age difference, or gives a good reason for why they belong together. Indeed, Marcia Gay Harden (2012's "Detachment
"), playing Sophie's mother, is but a year older than Firth and would probably have more chemistry with him if given the chance.
When "Magic in the Moonlight" finally reveals Sophie's validity (or lack thereof), the film lets some of its participants too easily off the hook while not adequately filling in the plot gaps that arise in its wake. Before this miscalculated third act, the picture offers some beauteous sun-dappled sights courtesy of cinematographer Darius Khondji (2012's "To Rome with Love
") and a few choice dialogue exchanges (when Sophie gushes that the scenery is "so beautiful" as she accompanies Stanley on a road trip to Provence, he curmudgeonly scoffs in return, "This is transient"). The picture also isn't without a little food for thought on the nature of illusions and personal belief systems, though these eventually take a backseat to an onscreen pairing that seems more uneasy than bewitching. That the ace supporting cast is so blatantly squandered doesn't help its case. With "Magic in the Moonlight," Woody Allen appears to have made a movie just to make one, bringing to it little of the passion, urgency and inspiration that separates his superior efforts from his second-rate fillers.