Magic in the Moonlight (PG-13) (97 min.) — Woody Allen's 44th movie over slightly more years continues his later work's erraticism, with its initial charms gradually blunted by arcane ramblings on faith and romance. It feels like a rush job, needing another draft or two for cohesion's sake, or for Allen to decide what sort of story he's telling.
The premise suggests the sort of lightweight yarn that only Allen completists seek out, lazily woven with swatches of previous works, especially the 1920s segments of Midnight in Paris. Colin Firth is suavely irritable magician Stanley Crawford, famous for wearing Mandarin drag under the stage persona Wei Ling Soo. Like Harry Houdini, Stanley is a renowned debunker of mediums claiming to be in touch with the spirit world.
Stanley is requested by a friend to investigate Sophie Baker (Emma Stone), a medium getting cozy with a wealthy family of Americans abroad, including lovestruck son Brice (Hamish Linklater). An eternal pessimist, without any trust in human nature, Stanley intends to expose Sophie as a fraud. Then he isn't sure. Then he's in love.
Given the noticeable age gap between Firth and Stone, assuming Allen's reasoning for the relationship is obvious. At the same time, the older man attempting to cast the younger woman as a liar runs close to Allen's most recent scandal, with accusations of child sexual abuse. As Magic in the Moonlight sinks into ruminations life's tragic reality and failed fantasy the artist seems to be throwing a pity party for himself.
Magic in the Moonlight is lovely to behold, as expected with Darius Khondji behind the camera, as the cast sparkles when asked by Allen, especially Eileen Atkins as the grande dame seeing through everyone's charade. And there is certainly no shame in Firth's stuffy game, or Stone despite seeming a bit too contemporary for her surroundings. She looks wonderful in Roaring Twenties fashion, at least.
The magic, however, is solely in the title, of a movie that is merely an elegant trifle, and the disappointment we're accustomed to expect now and then from the prolific Allen. C+
Steve Persall, Times movie critic