Magic in the Moonlight is a minor Woody Allen movie. Mind you, when I say "minor" I don't mean in comparison to Annie Hall or The Purple Rose of Cairo. I mean minor as compared to his films of the last decade or so. Remember Midnight in Paris, where groom-to-be Owen Wilson was repeatedly whisked into the 1920s for encounters with colorful figures? It's minor compared to that.
I was charmed by the scenery, the music and the notion that a Woody Allen surrogate could concede even the possibility that the supernatural might be real. The 1920s (yes, he goes there again) period details were impressive as well. The potential of romance between the lead characters was engaging primarily because the actors playing those characters were engaging. The rest of the cast was wasted.
When the closing credits of the movie rolled, I was left in a good mood. By the time I reached my car I'd pretty much forgotten the whole thing. Looking back on it now, I am primarily struck by all the missed opportunities.
Colin Firth plays renowned British magician Stanley Crawford, who performs under the guise of an old man purportedly from China. The stage persona, which looks cheesy and racist, is apparently Crawford's attempt to make his show seem more exotic.
Offstage, Crawford is arrogant and self-satisfied. Even to his friends, being with him is a challenge. Crawford delights in debunking spiritualists, so when his fellow magician Howard (Simon McBurney) invites him to the Riviera to check out a lovely clairvoyant named Sophie (Emma Stone) who is staying with wealthy old Grace (Jacki Weaver) to help her contact her deceased husband, he eagerly heads for France.
There's your premise. Serviceable enough, especially when the leads are Firth and Stone. Firth is very good at playing sophisticated, jaded, distant fellows that learn to care again, and he uses his skills effectively here. Stone takes her red-haired, blue-eyed American character and crafts a smart, charming young lass just otherworldly enough to make her even more beguiling. You know that the two of them will have some sort of romance — never mind the 28-year age gap. This is, after all, a Woody Allen movie.
The visuals are rich — check out the scene in the 127-year-old Nice Observatory (designed by Gustave Eiffel). The period songs are well-chosen and well-placed. If only Allen had made his supporting characters as interesting as the leads, the scenery and the music. Take Hamish Linklater, who plays a man smitten with Sophie. For years, Linklater appeared in The New Adventures of Old Christine as the brother of Julia Louis-Dreyfus. He was funny, complex and immensely likable in the show. In Allen's film, he is a one-note figure hanging around Sophie playing insipid songs on the ukelele.
Why hire highly regarded actors if you're not going to do anything with them? Why create a strikingly detailed world and populate it with only two realized characters? Why make minor movies? As films like Midnight in Paris and Blue Jasmine show, Woody Allen can still create distinct films populated with interesting people. Magic in the Moonlight is the product of a writer-director who isn't trying hard enough.