Let’s imagine for a moment that “Magic in the Moonlight” wasn’t written and directed by Woody Allen but by Bruce Schlabotnick or some other filmmaker you’ve never heard of. Would anyone care? Would anyone bother to write about it, argue about it, see it, or make a point of not seeing it? Or would the movie be one of the countless meh misfires that land, exhausted, on your TV’s On Demand menu halfway to a theatrical release that will never happen?
The latter, obviously. “Magic in the Moonlight” isn’t an Allen disaster like “Whatever Works” (2009) or “You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger” (2010), nor is it one of his recent high points, like “Blue Jasmine” or “Midnight in Paris.” It is a resolutely minor movie, neither pleasant nor unpleasant. It is forgettable. Above all, it is predictable, less in the outcome of individual scenes than in its whole Woody schtick, from the old-timey jazz and Windsor font of the opening credits to the too-tidy finale. Allen has been cranking out films so regularly over the decades — this is his 44th feature — that he’s finally running on autopilot. This isn’t creative consistency; it’s a rut.
Once again, talented and celebrated actors have lined up to play caricatures. We’re in 1920s Jazz Age England, and Stanley Crawford (Colin Firth) is earning a living in yellowface as the legendary Chinese magician Wei Ling Soo, making elephants disappear before gasping London audiences. Off stage, Stanley’s a cynic and a fusspot who pooh-poohs the notion of magic in the real world. To him, there are only successful illusions and gullible fools. A fellow magician (Simon McBurney, sniveling like Uriah Heep) visits with news of a young American medium, Sophie Baker (Emma Stone), whose séances have been dazzling the rich rubes of the Cote D’Azur. Will Stanley travel down to prove she’s a fraud?
Recent Allen movies have seemed animated by light but pungent philosophical concerns. “Midnight in Paris” literalized the nostalgia people can feel for eras before they were born, while “Match Point” explored the forks we never notice we’re taking in life’s road. In “Magic in the Moonlight,” the debate is between rationalism and faith — what you can see with your own eyes versus what you’re willing to leap into the dark for — but it’s given a trite, cursory treatment. Stanley fustigates against Sophie’s claims to be in touch with the spirit world, but at a certain point he seems to give in wholeheartedly, and even the agile Firth can’t make the contortions convincing.
Stone is the latest of Allen’s young lovelies and she’s a game gamine. As a performer, though, she’s likably natural, not an easy fit for arch period piffle like this. As stiff as she and Firth appear on the movie’s posters, that’s how they come across in the film: amusing waxworks with no inner core. The other actors — including Hamish Linklater as a lovelorn fop and Jacki Weaver as a naive dowager — have even less to work with. Only Eileen Atkins as Stanley’s no-nonsense aunt evokes the classic screwball relatives and Broadway character roles Allen’s trying to channel.
Just wondering: What does a good Woody Allen movie even mean in the 21st century? Probably one without him in it, sad to say (although he can be reliable entertainment in other people’s films, such as John Turturro’s recent “Fading Gigolo”). Preferably one set in the present day rather than that cartoon past within which the director and a sizable portion of his audience seem more comfortable. Ideally one in which an actor (like Cate Blanchett in “Blue Jasmine”) breaks free of Allen’s nattery dialogue — forever dissolving in wisecracks before real feelings get risked — and thin conceptions of how actual humans behave.
But “Magic in the Moonlight” doesn’t seem interested in being good. It’s merely business as usual, the work of a man who has been making movies for so long that he appears to have forgotten why. It requires a greater leap of faith than many of us may still be able to make.