Judging from reviews and box-office returns, the consensus seems to be that Woody Allen—the artist, as opposed to the man—has hit a late-career stride. The reality may be less that Allen has returned to form than that he occupies a unique position in the current showbiz food chain. As blockbusters become more homogenized, more focus-grouped, and more sequel-hungry, Allen’s ability to bankroll an annual trifle, and to serve it with professionalism and craft, makes his output seem increasingly like the second coming of Ernst Lubitsch.
This year’s offering, Magic In The Moonlight, has a slightness that would be perfectly at home at the bottom half of a ’30s double bill. The film begins in 1928 Berlin, and from the first frame, the flood of period details is so intoxicating (the production designer is Anne Seibel) that it almost doesn’t matter that, unlike in Midnight In Paris or To Rome With Love, the comedy is a good 30 or 40 percent less fizzy than it needs to be.
Colin Firth stars as Stanley, a renowned magician who has a side gig as a debunker of frauds. Popular for his cringe-worthy ethnocentric alter ego, Wei Ling Soo, Stanley has an imperious, sour offstage manner that likely bears a resemblance to Allen’s own. (“Autographs are for moral defectives,” he sneers at a fan.) A longtime colleague, Howard (a wonderful Simon McBurney), approaches him with a new case: Howard has observed Sophie (Emma Stone), a young woman who presents herself as a telepath, and has been unable to figure out how she’s fleecing a wealthy American family. Stanley is convinced he can unmask her. By the time he turns up at the socialites’ Cote D’Azur estate, one of them, Brice (Hamish Linklater), is already preparing to marry Sophie, serenading her in musical interludes as disruptive as those in A Night At The Opera.
Allen has a spotty track record when it comes to magic; there’s The Purple Rose Of Cairo on one hand, Alice on the other. The plotting is reasonably clever this time, but the conceit is mainly a springboard for some half-baked notions about the human need for illusions, with references to Nietzsche thrown in to give the movie a veneer of intellectual heft. Sophie, a cardboard love interest whose inner life remains secret even to the screenplay, opens Stanley to the possibility of romance, spirituality, and prayer, conveniently giving him an excuse to break things off with his older, more suitable fiancée (Catherine McCormack).
Sophie just might be a good match, “irrational as it seems,” the relentlessly rational Stanley admits. While there’s an almost inherent frothiness in any film about the capriciousness of attraction, it’s tough to avoid the autobiographical echo in this love triangle, a resonance that gives Magic In The Moonlight an off-putting, solipsistic air. Firth and Stone are terrific, but they’re cast as screwball leads. Given only intermittent opportunities for levity, the two end up serving as mouthpieces for Allen’s dubious self-justifications.