Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (December 10, 2014)
Just a year shy of his 80th birthday, Woody Allen continues to pump out movies at a relentless pace. Amazingly, Allen last failed to direct a new film in 1981!
2014 brings yet another Allen effort via Magic in the Moonlight. Set in Europe circa 1928, Stanley Crawford (Colin Firth) masquerades as a magician called Wei Ling Soo. Despite the nature of his craft, Stanley remains extremely skeptical about any form of mysticism, and he often debunks claims of “real magic”.
Along those lines, Stanley learns of Sophie Baker (Emma Stone), an alleged clairvoyant. Stanley gets the job to figure out how Sophie works her supposed “magic”, and along the way, complications – romantic and otherwise – ensue.
At this point in Allen’s career, we go into the director’s work with a common set of expectations, and Magic checks the usual boxes. Over the last decade, most of his films take place in Europe – check! Allen loves the shenanigans of the idle rich – check! And he seems enamored of stories with a bit of a fantasy twist such as Midnight in Paris - check again!
That 2011 hit offers the high point of Allen’s work since 2005’s Match Point, and Magic can’t recapture its easygoing charm. At best, Magic gives us an amiable romantic comedy, but despite Allen’s merits and the skills of a talented cast, it remains resolutely ordinary.
Much of the problem comes from the film’s essential lack of narrative and its semi-rambling quality. While I don’t require a tight plot, even by Allen’s standards, Magic seems unstructured. It sets up its theme and goes little beyond than that, as it expects us to feel so enamored of its characters that we won’t notice its inherent lack of narrative momentum.
Unfortunately, the personalities lack the magnetism to allow the aimless material to go anywhere. Allen’s gift for dialogue abandons him here, as his attempts at 1930s style snappy patter fall flat. We discover the occasional witty lines but most of the bits remain bland and ordinary.
The overall theme won’t win any awards either. Magic goes with the standard “uptight guy who learns how to live when he meets a free-spirited woman” motif and never expands beyond that. If Allen brings any nuances or freshness to the topic, I can’t discover it.
At least Magic lacks the usual Allen doppelganger, as it boasts no characters who really resemble the Woodman. Uptight Stanley shares some of the typical Allen traits but Firth never attempts to emulate the director, which comes as a relief since most actors who portray faux Woodys fail. Owen Wilson in Paris did better than most because his natural film persona has its own similarities with Woody’s, but I think the sight of Firth as Allen would’ve been a disaster.
Firth does perfectly fine in the lead, as whatever flaws he displays stem more from the lifeless dialogue. The same goes for Stone’s Sophie, as the actor’s normal charm gets a bit lost in the stiffness of the writing. Marcia Gay Harden’s work as Sophie’s mother gives off a few sparks, but she appears on screen too little for this to matter.
Even with these flaws, Magic maintains a moderate level of entertainment value. Maybe I’ve endured enough bad Allen movies over the last few decades that a mediocre one doesn’t bother me. That said, I find it hard to expect that anyone not enamored of Allen’s work will take much from this ordinary film.