These days Woody Allen’s strikerate is down to around one in three. The trouble is picking which one is going to be the one worth checking out, as on the surface pretty much all Allen’s recent films sound equally likely to be a hit. Midnight in Paris, about a writer who travels back in time to the Paris of the 1920s, turned out to be a charming romp; Allen’s next film, To Rome with Love, was about various relationships in Rome, and was… not so great. So coming off Blue Jasmine, his most interesting film in years, it’s tempting to cut Allen a bit of slack with Magic in the Moonlight: after that film’s heavy look at a woman’s decline, why shouldn’t he have a little fun? Unfortunately there’s only a little fun – and little of anything else – on offer in this extremely slight concoction.
The year is 1928, and Stanley (Colin Firth) is the most renowned stage magician (as the “Chinese” magician Wei Ling Soo) of the age. He’s also a grumpy sod who takes great pleasure in debunking psychics and spiritualists, so when the closest thing he has to a friend (Simon McBurney, with an amazingly bad haircut) tells him about a medium (Emma Stone) currently raking in the cash from a family friend in the south of France, he’s on the case. Supposedly this medium’s act is so impressive no one’s been able to figure out how she’s doing it; despite his confidence, it soon turns out that he’s as stumped as all the rest.
This is prime “meet-cute” material – he’s a man of science, she’s a woman who makes a living waving her hands about while talking about “vibrations”; obviously they’re going to fall in love – but at least Allen takes a stab at adding another layer to it with some discussion about whether people should face the harsh facts about reality if all it does is make them grouchy and sour. Trouble is, even this is pretty wet; Allen sides (slightly) with the illusions, which will come as zero surprise to anyone who’s noticed they’re watching a rom-com. At least Firth and Stone are fun together, even if their romance seems pretty unlikely. Maybe Allen will have better luck next time.