Woody Allen’s latest movie, Magic in the Moonlight, is one of his brightest and prettiest recent baubles; and we thought he couldn’t come up with another one. It’s set on the French Riviera in 1928, where the ladies wear gauzy flapper dresses, the men are in three-piece linens, and the Alfa Romeos shine like crystal. The footage was shot by Darius Khondji on film (it does make a difference) using Cinemascope lenses. The images are slightly softened and the colors heightened. As if Emma Stone were not already luminous, in every scene she is perfectly, lovingly lighted. It’s only when you turn this bauble around and consider its statistics and intellectual underpinnings that you may see a dark underside. The story’s pretty simple. A misogynistic magician falls for a young spiritualist whom he’s set out to prove a fraud. In this decorative piece of fluff Colin Firth is Stanley Crawford the magician, and and Emma Stone is Sophie Baker, the spirit reader, who by film’s end appears to have dumped her recent fiance, Brice (Hamish Linklater), an utterly devoted young millionaire who is besotted with her and determined to devote his life, and his money, to keeping her happy and amused. He doesn’t really care about her performances as a medium. He just finds her utterly charming and beautiful. Have you got a problem with that? Just watch Emma Stone in action.
To get things under way, an old colleague, Howard Burkan (Simon McBurney) approaches Stanley backstage in Berlin where he’s been doing his usual celebrated job posing as the Chinese conjurer Wei Ling Soo, disappearing elephants and teleporting himself across the stage to the tune of Stravinsky (Le Sacre du Printemps) and Beethoven (the Ninth Symphony). This declaration of high culture literacy in music seems a bit overemphatic. But Stanley’s to become Sophie’s self-appointed teacher in intellectual matters, though distinguishing Shakespeare from Dickens sems to be as far as it goes. In Berlin, Howard tells Stanley about young Sophie’s fame as a medium, which seems in need of puncturing. Stanley’s an expert at proving such practitioners fake. They go posthaste to the Cote d’Azur, where Sophie and her mom (Marcia Gay Harden) are guests of rich Americans, the Catledges. Stanley’s favorite Aunt Vanessa (Eileen Atkins), handily enough, lives right nearby.
Stanley is an egocentric, pessimistic grouch whose gods are Hobbes and Nietsche, and his undesirable character is drawn for us with very broad, very clear strokes. Firth has said he’s never played a more unappealing role. Stanley is bound to get his world shaken up and go all mushy. This happens speedily because Sophie sees through him right away, her hints that she’s sensing an aura of something Oriental about him soon giving way to flat-out telling him she knows he’s Wei Ling Soo. But it’s the young woman’s apparent ability to tease out of the ectoplasm a particularly intimate secret of Aunt Vanessa’s that totally floors this gloomy, puffed-up sketptic. And when Sophie consents to go on a day trip with Stanley in his Alfa, they’re marooned in a storm and take shelter in an adorable period observatory Aunt Vanessa used to take him to, whose roof opens after the rain stops and shows — and it’s magic in the moonlight. Meanwhile, Brice works his own charms. He croons to Sophie plucking his ukulele, which, given the period and his good looks and good manners, isn’t as tiresome as it sounds. He poses fetchingly in a period bathing suit. He partners Sophie at a spectacular dance party. Above all, he declares his love and proposes. He promises they’ll sail the world, including Bora Bora, in a large yacht, and he’ll fund a foundation set up for her work.
Stanley is slow to admit he’s smitten, and his own delayed proposal, when it finally comes, after Sophie’s just received a huge diamond ring from Brice, is a model of niggardliness and arrogance. This is true even though he’s just briefly tried praying and Aunt Vanessa’s recovery from an accident has made him thankful, while Sophie’s magical perceptions have made him consider that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in his philosophy — and that’s not Dickens. The way the less desirable suitor at first glance becomes, on further inspection, the more attractive one provides nothing that wasn’t in Jane Austen save the stylistic touches added by Woody’s highly skilled team, some of whom have worked with him on over a dozen films.
What doesn’t wear so well in the context of this particular director is the way the plot weaves a romantic spell around a young woman in bloom and a man who could very easily be her father. A man moreover for whom she drops a richer, nicer man, who, though a bit older than she, definitely could not be her dad. Firth is 54, and handsomely presented as he is here, still looks his age. Stone is 26. Linklater is a boyish 38. Nonetheless all the casting is fine, even Jackie Weaver’s as Brice’s gullible, needy mother, different though this is from the gangster matriarch she so memorably played in Animal Kingdom. It’s the romantic trajectory, familiar now from Woody, of a grumpy older man who wins a beautiful young woman, that’s harder to swallow.
Magic in the Moonlight, with its conventional but immaculate summery images, is clearly a more appetizing and affirmative picture of a misogynist cradle robber than the repulsive one played by Larry David in Allen’s 2009 Whatever Works. Everything is softened and sweetened this time by being sifted through a Twenties Riviera filter. Like Chinese food, after two hours you’ll be hungry again, but you won’t have indigestion. Woody has not achieved the emotional complexity he got in Blue Jasmine or spun out the imaginative flights and jazz age portraits he nailed in Midnight in Paris. The magic is a bit mechanical here, except in a couple of moments when the camera is on Emma Stone — and in one subtle and very Jane Austen dialogue between Stanley and Aunt Vanessa when she slowly teases out of him his admission of love. Aileen Atkins isn’t a Dame for nothing.
DIRECTOR: WOODY ALLEN
WRITER: WOODY ALLEN
STARS: COLIN FIRTH, EMMA STONE, AILEEN ATKINS, JACKIE WEAVER, SIMON MCBURNEY, HAMISH LINKLATER, MARCIA GAY HARDEN
RUNTIME: 97 MINS APPROX