Magic in the Moonlight is a breezy, mannered comedy of the sort that Woody Allen makes every few years, a pleasant trifle set in a lovingly photographed locale made between more substantial pieces of work. And as that goes it’s enjoyable enough, but this is very much the filmmaker in his To Rome With Love mode, where all the arch performances in the world can only do so much to cover the slightness at hand. The film is full of ideas about religion and other, less ritualized forms of spirituality, but they’re really just setups for punchy dialogue; above all, Allen’s in the business of magic once again.
Like the much-loved but underwhelming Midnight in Paris, it’s the film’s vehement and continual demand that audiences buy into the seductive magic of the film’s opposites-attract tale that undercuts Moonlight at numerous points throughout. After his questionable introduction in Yellowface, we’re brought into the world of Stanley (Colin Firth), a sought-after illusionist in 1920s England who’s considered not only an expert in his own craft, but in debunking fraudulent seers and mystics using his own knowledge of deception and his finely-honed instincts. Like most Allen proxies, Firth is an atheist and more than a bit of a misanthrope, brusquely dismissing serious talk of the preternaturally gifted with bon mots like “I always thought the unseen world was a fine place to open a restaurant.”
He’s hired by a fellow showman to debunk a woman supposedly in tune with the dead, who’s been taken in by a family of socialites living in the French Riviera. Stanley relishes the opportunity to thwart yet another charlatan, but is instead faced with Sophie (Emma Stone), a comely medium whose idealism regarding her gifts makes for a fine contrast to Firth’s inborn cynicism. From there Moonlight moves on at a leisurely pace. One of the film’s virtues is its insistence on getting the obligatory beats out of the way; while the veracity of Sophie’s gifts stays in question throughout, Firth’s deception is exposed before long, so that the film can move on to the enjoyable conflict between mysticism and pragmatism.
The film’s biggest attribute by far is the pairing of Firth and Stone. The two crackle together, Allen’s typically verbose dialogue nested in two actors whose general delivery styles are perfect for the material. Firth is dapper and morose, Stone charming and childlike without coming off as ignorant in the slightest, and their repartee makes for Moonlight’s best stuff. Even though the film leans heavily on the charm of watching these opposites attract, since it doesn’t particularly have a lot going on outside of their adversarial pairing outside of the baxtering of Sophie’s loveable but dopey beau (Hamish Linklater), Allen manages to get more mileage out of the pairing than it probably warrants.
But for as endearing as they are, Firth reacting to the nighttime sky in the observatory with a “But you can see the universe. It’s menacing,” the film can only hide for so long that little else is going on. (It’s appropriate, then, that it doesn’t so much end as it halts in what feels like the middle of the denouement.) Nobody outside of the leads ends up mattering all that much, and nor, ultimately, does Magic in the Moonlight. It’s good for steady, polite laughs, and for watching a pair of talented actors banter like the glamorous movie stars of old. But as has been Allen’s wont of late, Moonlight is more interested in the pleasant auspices of yesteryear than in anything the modern world could possibly offer.