There aren't many geniuses in film, but Woody Allen might just be one of them. Arguably the greatest comedic writer-director since Charlie Chaplin — though the Coen Brothers are breathing down his neck — Allen will leave the world a less intelligent, less wondrous place when he finally retires or becomes too feeble to bang away at his 1950s manual typewriter. Now that compliments are out of the way, let's talk about Allen's current problems, which are far too evident in his latest sleight of hand, Magic in the Moonlight.
Those problems are pace and personality. Excluding Blue Jasmine and Midnight in Paris, Allen's most recent offerings have too often relied on a good story while suffering from a tired tempo, mediocre directing and miscast leads. It's almost as if Allen has fallen in love with the idea of working with certain actors, such as Scarlett Johansson, Owen Wilson and Penelope Cruz, without considering whether those performers — talented though some may be — are right for the task at hand.
The latest on that list is Emma Stone, who is luminous in Magic but still not quite right for the role. Stone plays Sophie, a young psychic in the 1920s who may turn out to be nothing more than a con artist, and, with the help of her mother (an underused Marcia Gay Harden), is attempting to swindle wealthy families on the French Riviera by staging fake séances. Skeptical of Sophie's intentions, one family seeks the help of Howard Burkan (Simon McBurney), a well-known magician and debunker of fake mediums. But when Howard can't figure out Sophie's schemes, he turns to his friend Stanley (Colin Firth), a famous magician who is Europe's top exposer of charlatans.
Stanley is all business, and seemingly passionless. "There is no metaphysical world," he explains. "What you see out there is what you get." He applies that philosophy not just to his prestidigitatorial profession but to every aspect of his life, down to his relationship with his fiancée (Catherine McCormack), whom he seems to love mostly because it's the logical thing to do. It's no surprise then — this is a Woody Allen romantic comedy, after all — that his world is upended by the unexpected allure of Sophie, who proves his equal on the battlegrounds of both intellect and love.
With a smart premise and a good turn from Firth, Magic has the makings of an Allen classic close to the quality of, say, Mighty Aphrodite or even The Purple Rose of Cairo; regrettably, it's worthy of only the slightest recommendation, due to tedious scenes lacking in comedic punch, almost no chemistry between Stone and Firth, and an obvious twist that takes too long to reveal itself. At its best, it's a touching commentary on faith, trust and love, but once its weaknesses become more visible, it becomes not much more than a charming caper-comedy that's alternatingly clever and clumsy.