There have long been notable connections between filmmakers and magicians. Houdini became a film star, Orson Welles delighted in performing magic (sometimes on film), and stand-up performers turned actor-directors Steve Martin and Woody Allen have also shown a marked interest in magic and affectionately spoofing it. But while Allen's new film Magic in the Moonlight literally has an illusionist in it, the picture figuratively lacks the magic the filmmaker promises.
Those who have avidly followed Allen's movie-a-year career will recognize not only his obsession with magic, but the tension between love and faith and "logic and common sense." These latter traits define the seemingly well-matched fiancée (Catherine McCormack) of the rational-minded Stanley Crawford (Colin Firth), who makes his not-entirely-honest living—in 1928, mind you—as a magician who practices the now-repellent stage tradition of yellowface. Stanley's persona of Wei Ling Soo is all a part of the harmless trickery, the frivolous entertainment, that pays his bills.
But, like Houdini (and today's Amazing Randi), Stanley sidelines as a debunker of predatory self-proclaimed psychics whose séances clog the drawing rooms of the Jazz Age well-to-do. And so it is that Stanley accompanies his friend Howard (Simon McBurney) to the Côte d'Azur, where the wealthy and vulnerable Catledge family has been hosting the supposedly clairvoyant Sophie Baker (Emma Stone) and her mother (Marcia Gay Harden). With smug self-confidence, Stanley assures Howard that he will unmask Sophie as a fraud, just like all the others.
The trouble is twofold: first, Sophie convincingly conjures details about Stanley that she seemingly couldn't know; and second, she's rather fetching. Before he knows it, Stanley is questioning all of his assumptions about existence and stricken with that ultimate irrationality we call love (the film's appropriate theme song, an Allen standby, is Cole Porter's "You Do Something to Me"). Allen quotes Nietzsche—"We need our illusions to live"—while reminding us of the curse of being too rational to accept that for which there is no evidence, as well as the trump card that is love.
On paper, then, Magic in the Moonlight sounds fascinating. It runs on an enticing premise, as it must've seemed when Allen fished it out of his drawer of scribbled ideas. And, in execution, the film has lots going for it, particularly a sumptuous look (in locations, production design, costumes, and Darius Khondji's shot-on-film cinematography) and another swell Allen ensemble (also including Eileen Atkins, Hamish Linklater, and Jacki Weaver). So why does the film lay there like a dead fish Allen can't conjure back to life?
Perhaps Allen is a victim of the expectations set by his past glories, and perhaps Magic in the Moonlight isn't supposed to be especially funny, though it has the shape of a romantic comedy and some very Woody turns of phrase (like the description of Stanley as "a perfectionist, a snob, a genius, with all the charm of a typhus epidemic"), But the film is sedate, uninspired, rather obvious and old hat for Allen (not least for its, well, not entirely rational "cranky older man attracts much-younger beauty" dynamic). So while it's not unpleasant, this Magic disappointingly fails to capture the imagination.