The experience of watching Woody Allen's annual movie, "Magic in the Moonlight," suggests that last year's "Blue Jasmine" represents something of an anomaly in his long, prolific career. In that picture he abandoned a number of his perennial subjects -- the upper West Side ambiance, the preoccupation with sexual inadequacy, the tendency to rely on gags when invention fails, and the fondness for silly fantasy and tepid whimsy. The film included some most unusual matters for him, including a glimpse of working-class life, a downbeat ending, and a terrifically well written part for Cate Blanchett, who earned an Academy Award for her performance.
In "Magic in the Moonlight," Allen resumes his recent interest in European settings and characters. In the last few years, for example, he has located his movies in London ("Match Point"), Spain ("Vicky Cristina Barcelona"), Paris ("Midnight in Paris"), and Rome ("To Rome With Love"). Except for brief scenes in Berlin and London, "Magic in the Moonlight" places its action in the south of France in the summer of 1928, allowing the director to exploit the beauty of the countryside, some magnificent dwellings, and the special context of its time.
The plot depends on a relatively familiar idea, the attempt to unmask a medium as a fraud. A successful professional illusionist, Stanley (Colin Firth), who performs in Oriental costume under the name of Wei Ling Soo, travels to France at the request of his friend and fellow magician Howard Burkan (Simon McBurney) to debunk the claims of a young American woman, Sophie Baker (Emma Stone), to read people's thoughts and communicate with the dead. She conducts séances at the home of a widow (Jacki Weaver), who wishes to speak to her husband and intends to endow a foundation for Sophie's psychic research.
The film follows an entirely predictable pattern, with the illusionist aggressively attacking Sophie's work, deriding her claims to special powers, and incessantly asserting a view of the universe based on logic, reason, and empiricism, while she suggests that another realm exists beyond the material world. She confounds him, however, by revealing an intimate knowledge of his life and background and demonstrating some apparently supernatural powers in a séance. Overwhelmed, he even calls a press conference to announce his change of mind and his new acceptance of her abilities.
That renunciation of his previous views leads to further problems and difficulties, many of them discussed in a number of tedious, talky interchanges between Stanley and his Aunt Vanessa (Eileen Atkins), who conveniently also lives in the area. Much of the film in fact consists of long conversations between Stanley and Vanessa and Stanley and Sophie, most of them preachy and repetitive.
Almost nothing in "Magic in the Moonlight" displays more than a modicum of originality or imagination. Colin Firth dominates the movie, but his incessant pompous boasting and aggressively insulting manner make Stanley a most unsympathetic character; his one-note performance ultimately becomes tiresome and even embarrassing. The vague, wispy, waiflike Emma Stone looks to be about 16 years old, which makes her a most unconvincing psychic and a quite unlikely match for the large, 50ish Stanley. Her blandness and his loud assertiveness never create a plausible emotional connection; together they hardly generate enough chemistry to fill a test tube.
The only engaging elements in the movie derive from its time and place. The gorgeous scenery of Provence, the elegant automobiles, the clothing, and the terrific popular music from the great composers of the 1920's, especially Cole Porter, endow the somnolent nonsense of "Magic in the Moonlight" with some color and vivacity. Its thin plot demands a number of artificial embellishments to support even its extremely flimsy content.
Although Woody Allen's devoted fans, for whom his every gesture constitutes an act of brilliance, may enjoy "Magic in the Moonlight," I doubt if many other viewers will find the work satisfying. Its initial premise never develops beyond a sort of perfunctory sketch full of awkward exposition, and with the exception of Stanley's friend and fellow magician, Howard, none of the characters commands any interest. Even so successful and accomplished an actor as Colin Firth can't save this trivial, self-indulgent little flick.