'Magic in the Moonlight'

A hack magician falls for a seemingly legit spiritualist
in the stiff, starchy Magic in the Moonlight
IN THE SPIRIT: Magician Stanley (Colin Firth) schemes to expose the fraudulent ways of young psychic Sophie (Emma Stone)—until she appears to be the real deal.

A Sentimental attachment to Woody Allen's movies and a disgust at trial-by-Twitter make me want to consider Magic in the Moonlight outside all the Internet racket of Dylangate. Unfortunately, it's all about a middle-aged man trying to expose a young girl as a liar.

This stuffy, creaky comedy, photographed in a runny pastel by Darius Khondji, concerns misanthrope British stage magician Stanley Crawford (Colin Firth). He performs in Mandarin-face as "Wei Ling Soo." An old friend (Simon McBurney) informs him about a phony female spiritualist preying on a rich family in the Riviera, and coaxes Stanley to go to France to expose her. When the magician arrives, though, the spiritualist Sophie (Emma Stone) turns out to be a large-eyed slip of a girl from Kalamazoo. Moreover, she turns out to be seemingly legitimate.

The costumes by Sonia Grande are a treat; Stone has the frame for those Jazz Age sheaths, and she makes you wonder if she couldn't have done a better job as Daisy Buchanan than Carey Mulligan recently did. She looks particularly impertinent in a modified mariner's outfit with pompom-free tam o'shanter. Oddly, Sophie wears this ensemble into a formal dinner where the men are tuxedoed, but that's part of the strange ahistorical quality of this comedy.

Even 1930s slice-of-pie comedies had some Great War mincemeat in them. It's odd that the natural explanation for Stanley's arrogance, coldness and atheism is bypassed—it would have made sense if some time in the trenches had put the twist in Stanley's smile.

Allen's knowledge of jazz, like his knowledge of history, seems to hit limits. For someone so obsessed with stage magic, it's also remarkable how little passion Allen has for the tricks. The few simple acts Wei Ling Soo performs on stage would have been ordinary even in the 1920s; the audience gives golf-applause. The soundtrack flogs a few moldy familiar tunes. Some of them come from Sophie's boorishly persistent beau, Brice (Hamish Linklater)—very rich, but addicted to bad ukulele playing.

Linklater has the right kind of voice for the Rudy Vallee era of crooner. It's strange how someone as bewitched by '20s music as Allen fails to give Brice a break. We could tell Vallee in The Palm Beach Story (1942) was a sap when he tried to serenade Claudette Colbert; his John C. Hackensacker III had to put on ridiculous pince-nez glasses to read the lyric sheet, which then turned out to be upside down. But the music he sang ("Goodnight, Sweetheart") wasn't an affront. Some good uke music would have helped a film with this much starch in it. It's surprising how Allen refuses to construct a love triangle sturdy enough not to blow over in the first strong breeze.

Firth and Stone keep this minor comedy from unwatchability—Firth would even be dashing if his character wasn't so bad-mannered. He may be the same age as the actress playing Sophie's mother, Marcia Gay Harden (given as little to do as any former Oscar winner has gotten in a subsequent movie). But Firth is ageless enough so that there's no serious objection to the May-Decembering.

Still, you never know where Allen's mind is with this comedy. He's rarely seemed so distracted. For some reason, this piffle turns out to have a ponderous undercarriage. Sophie's ability to talk to the next world immediately challenges Stanley's disbelief in God.

No matter the ultimate outcome of Stanley's crisis, Magic in the Moonlight is the first Allen movie that gives us a big, old-fashioned prayer scene, and it's hard not to be dismayed by Stanley's agnostic angst, by lines like "I believe that the dignity of man is not enough!" Allen once lampooned the desperately religious, as when his character had a cancer scare in Hannah and Her Sisters. He once gave urbane viewers lines that could be used to ward off the religious: "God doesn't play dice with the universe" "No, he just plays hide and seek." In the context of a bum romance, with no quotable jokes, the open religiousness in this movie makes it seem all the more certain that this film won't have a prayer.

Magic In the Moonlight

97 MIN.; PG-13

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