Magic–and by extension, spiritualism–has long been a recurring theme in Woody Allen’s work. He was an amateur magician as a boy, reflected in his play The Floating Light Bulb, and magicians and mediums have appeared in his work throughout his career. Just off the top of my head I can think of A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy, Scoop, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, Oedipus Wrecks, and The Curse of the Jade Scorpion.
Now he is has made his definitive film about the subject, one would hope, with Magic in the Moonlight. Basically the movie is a dialogue about the rational mind versus the mind that believes in the unseen world, and whether a person is happier when one hangs on to delusions. This might make for an interesting conversation over drinks, but not a very good movie.
Colin Firth, in a bad performance, plays a famous magician (in a bit of tone-deaf racism, he disguises himself as a Chinese man, complete with Fu Manchu mustache). He is also an arrogant prick, and is well-known as a debunker of fraudulent mediums (much like Houdini was–the debunker part, that is). A colleague (Simon McBurney), takes him to the south of France to attempt to debunk an American spiritualist (Emma Stone), who has charmed a rich family.
Firth tries to discover her tricks, but can’t, and eventually comes to believe she’s the real thing, which opens his mind to wonders he never considered and briefly makes him a better person. I won’t go any further than that, but any smart person will figure out how it will end.
I think Magic in the Moonlight was meant to be a comedy, but it has no laughs. There are some mild japes here and there, but only one thing made me laugh, when a psychiatrist says of Firth, “He is a very unhappy man. I like him.” Most of the film is made up of Firth’s many speeches about the folly of believing in anything but the rational world. I agree with him, but he quickly grew tiresome.
Almost saving the picture is Stone, who is at her most winsome here. I swear her eyes were enlarged by CGI–she’s like one of those Walter Keane paintings. Stone, who has specialized in light comedy like this, is now due to play something more serious, as she’s kind of wasted here. The movie forces her and Firth together, and they have absolutely no chemistry (as well as being about thirty years different in age). They are the least convincing pair since Allen and Helen Hunt in Jade Scorpion.
There are many other common Allen tropes–the film is set in the ’20s, so we get a lot of period music and the idle rich just kind of wandering around. For a Woody Allen film, the pace is also very bad. Some scenes last a beat or two too long, and the the whole thing is discomfiting. Allen seems to have a good film every other time out of the box lately, so maybe he should just pass on every other idea, and throw it back into the pile.
My grade for Magic in the Moonlight: C-.