The inherent problem in cranking out a movie (sometimes two!) every year, as Woody Allen has been doing for the last 34 years, is that some of them are inevitably going to be dogs. Does someone have a gun to the filmmaker’s head that forces him to proceed with half-baked, joyless comedies such as Magic in the Moonlight instead of tossing bad ideas out and starting fresh? This is, at best, a 20-minute TV episode extended to feature length, and the stretch marks show. Boy, do they show. That’s practically all you can see, really.
Last year’s Blue Jasmine, a study of a pampered woman under duress, won Cate Blanchett a well-deserved Oscar, and Allen won a Best Original Screenplay award in 2011 for Midnight in Paris. But in between those, we got To Rome with Love and You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger and Whatever Works and Cassandra’s Dream, all pictures that had interesting elements in them but were in clear need of a rewrite or two.
Magic in the Moonlight, which is set in 1920s Paris, feels like a first draft Allen started shooting the moment he finished the last page. You have to go back to 2003’s Anything Else, which starred Jason Biggs and Christina Ricci (presumably Allen’s way of courting a younger audience) to find a picture as feeble and thin as this one. The set-up is promising: Stanley (Colin Firth) is a renowned British stage magician who wows audiences with the usual tricks — levitation, disappearing acts, sawing a woman in half — while disguised as a mysterious Chinaman.
Stanley is arrogant and successful and pompous — he’s a bit of a jerk — so when his friend (Simon McBurney) tells him of a young woman, Sophie (Emma Stone), causing a furor in Paris with her psychic powers and ability to communicate with the dead, Stanley immediately flies there to debunk the young upstart. He knows there’s no such thing as real magic, but he’ll be damned if he’s going to let some American scam artist steal the spotlight from him.
But when he sees Sophie at work, Stanley can’t explain how she knows personal facts and details about people she’s never met. She really does seem to be able to read minds. And most of all, she’s beautiful: Instead of trying to bring her down, Stanley begins to fall for her.
Magic in the Moonlight hits all the bases that have become the director’s trademark, from a leading man in love with a woman young enough to be his daughter to lovely cinematography (by Darius Khondji) whose sun-kissed images add the pleasure of a travelogue to the movie. But once the premise has been established, the film goes absolutely nowhere. Allen throws in some weak-tea debate about whether it’s better to have faith in something, no matter how mysterious, but it all feels like lip service to inflate a leaky balloon. Firth yammers and stammers so much, I actively wished his character would somehow lose his voice. He is insufferable. Stone is, as always, a delight, but her character is so ill-defined, we’re constantly trying to figure her out, much like Stanley does, so we don’t get a clear read on her. Supporting players such as Marcia Gay Harden and Jacki Weaver are wasted in nothing roles, and as Allen tries to fill up 97 minutes with this silly, dull bauble, you’ll wish you had some magical powers of your own to make yourself disappear from the theater.