Another year, another new Woody Allen film has come to the theaters in the summer months, positioning itself as a breezy romantic comedy antidote for the body-count heavy blockbuster season. This year’s installment, Magic in the Moonlight (Allen’s 44th directorial feature), stars Colin Firth as Stanley, a brusque magician and skeptical crusader tasked to come away to the French Riviera in order to expose a supposed American medium named Sophie (Emma Stone), who has infiltrated a wealthy family alongside her mother (Marcia Gay Harden) looking for a payoff. The son (Hamish Linklater) is smitten. The mother (Jacki Weaver) wants to contact her deceased husband. And Stanley’s colleague in skepticism and magic Howard (Simon McBurney) cannot seem to reveal Sophie to be a fraud no matter how he tries. Stanley is the best in the world at getting to the truth of these matters, and is called off the bench to get down to business.
From the opening credits, Stanley is characterized as a stick in the mud. By day, he masquerades as a Chinese prestidigitator named Wei Ling Su, and his backstage demeanor is less than kind. He is cocksure, boorish and casually rude to the help, comfortable in his belief that his is always both the cleverest and smartest person in any room in which he finds himself. He bounds off to France, so eager to slay his next dragon and exult over the body of another fallen charlatan that it could not be more possible for Mr. Allen to telegraph what comes next were he to use signs. Within a day he has become convinced that Sophie is a true medium and that his entire life’s commitment to rationality, logic and skepticism was all a lie. It is a character reversal marked by staggering speed and staggering implausibility. With all of the bluster of Stanley’s personality, with his supposed legendary reputation as a champion of reason, the rate at which he throws it all away is dizzying. To some extent, one could hardly blame him. Stone is radiantly dressed and framed, taking full advantage of the flapper stylings of the late 20’s. She is the sort of vision that could make almost anyone swoon. But Stanley is theoretically above that.
The second act of Magic in the Moonlight, wherein Stanley has a combined mental breakdown and existential crisis as all of his assumptions crumble away, is almost always tough to swallow. Firth and Stone both do what they can to keep the ship afloat; their romantic chemistry never feels comfortable or earned, but they are both undeniably charming presences on the screen, and Firth is especially adept at playing the sort of oblivious British blowhard the script needs him to be. Unfortunately, that script thinks it is much more clever than it actually is, and telegraphs its twists from far away. It is clear that the other shoe will drop eventually. When it does, it brings not shock but relief that the film can finally get out from under the weight of its purported mystery. What is troubling is what comes next. Etiquette precludes one from going into detail, but it is safe to say that the final fifteen minutes of this film are so utterly tone deaf that it is impossible to believe that this is the same man who wrote Manhattan or Annie Hall. Mr. Allen may be untouchable in Hollywood after 43 features and almost 50 years on the screen, but in times like these, he could benefit from some external editorial oversight. Perhaps another mind on the matter would point out that Stanley’s casual portrayal of yellowface, or the lack of even a hint of attention to the fact that there is a 30 or so year age gap between Sophie and Stanley should be considered a red flag. It harms the efficacy of the film, especially after the threat of unbelievable romance begins to bloom.
Artifice is at the heart of Magic in the Moonlight, which should not come as a surprise considering its subject matter. And yet, Woody Allen populates his film with the most gullible and earnest charlatans and skeptics ever committed to film. There is an undercurrent of arrogance at play not just in the characterization of Stanley, but in the assumption that the audience will warm to him by the film’s end and buy his romance with Sophie despite being given no adequate reason to do so. Yes, Stone and Firth give sporadically endearing performances when the script is not shoving overly expository dialogue into their mouths, but it is all in service to this foundational artifice that Allen assumes the audience will just understand because he’s Woody Allen. The artifice at the center of the plot may fade in its third act, but the artifice underneath it all only intensifies in its closing minutes. It is here that Magic in the Moonlight reveals itself for what it truly is: a piece of misguided and at least partially repugnant slice of wish fulfillment. This is no magic here, only illusion. It is a shame Stanley could not have exposed this chicanery instead.