Hate to sum things up in a single sentence here, but in Woody Allen's Magic in the Moonlight, there's not much magic on the screen. The manic, sexually pedatory auteur's 44th feature film opens areawide on Friday, and it's chock-full of Allen's babbling, bantering, endlessly neurotic and existential characters. Despite a few solid performances, this one's much more Scoop than Midnight in Paris.
It's the Roaring '20s, a decade Allen adores, and Colin Firth is the estimable British magician Stanley Crawford. He performs under the alias Wei Ling-soo (yellowface, fu manchu, the whole deal) and keeps his eye for tricks sharp by debunking sham mystics the world over. After Crawford's top-hole performance in Berlin, an old chum invites him to an estate in the south of France. There, a family of American industrialists have been seduced by the charm and clairvoyance of one Sophie Baker (the waifish Emma Stone), a "spiritualist" who has convinced them that she can predict the future and commune with the unseen world, among other things.
Crawford then engages in the protracted exercise of unmasking the fraud — it must be a fraud, he insists, or else his entire worldview will crumble! — and does so with all the dexterity, dry wit and Nietzsche quotes we've come to expect from Brits: "I've always thought the unseen world would be an ideal place to open a restaurant," Crawford quips to Sophie. "After all, spirits must eat too."
Romance blossoms, predictably... and also uneasily. It's almost impossible to get over the age difference here: Colin Firth b. 1960; Emma Stone b. 1988. He is old enough to comfortably be her father, and though the discomfort of that discrepancy has certainly never held much sway in Woody Allen's personal life, as an audience member it's hard to separate the writer from his script in instances like these. Though Firth, and to a lesser extent Stone, are individually competent, there's very little between them that you might classify as "chemistry."
Firth is, of course, the Woody Allen surrogate, and though Allen prefers to make all his leading men "neurotics" in his own image, Firth's Crawford is more of a narcissistic asshole than a narcissistic spaz. He's sometimes overbroad and one-dimensional, but his comic delivery is for the most part on point. The dopey Hamish Linklater, as Sophie's swooning suitor, also has one or two moments of comedic accuracy.
Overall, though, it's just an unmemorable script. Woody Allen hasn't lost it or anything — he still does awkwardness better than anybody — it's just that when you make a feature film every year, there are duds interspersed among gems like Midnight in Paris and Blue Jasmine.