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Magic in the Moonlight


Published August 20, 2014 at 10:00 a.m.

The boring '20s Stone plays a clairvoyant who reaches out to the departed and makes contact with the once-great Woody Allen's talent.
  • The boring '20s Stone plays a clairvoyant who reaches out to the departed and makes contact with the once-great Woody Allen's talent.

Woody Allen pulls off a pretty impressive trick with his 44th film: He makes the charm of Emma Stone and Colin Firth disappear. Rarely have such appealing performers found themselves stranded in roles this underwritten and tiresome.

Firth plays Stanley, a magician of the 1920s who performs in Oriental costume under the stage name Wei Ling Soo. He's the toast of Europe and, we learn, a Jazz Age version of the Amazing Randi. Many of you are too young to remember the illusionist-turned-debunker of the paranormal. Or the days when a new picture by Allen virtually guaranteed a good time.

Nobody who was around then will have difficulty recalling that period, however, since the filmmaker spends so much time these days recycling themes and motifs from it. When a friend and fellow magician (Simon McBurney) invites Stanley to the Côte d'Azur to debunk a comely clairvoyant he claims is pulling the wool over the eyes of a wealthy matron (Jacki Weaver), it quickly becomes clear we're in for another round of Is the universe the work of some metaphysical force, or a meaningless moral wasteland? It's the kind of question the writer-director posed to masterful effect decades ago in Hannah and Her Sisters and Crimes and Misdemeanors.

Stone does her best to breathe believable life into the role of Sophie; interesting, much less amusing, life is out of the question, through no fault of the 25-year-old actress. Allen supplies her with snappy flapper couture to wear but nothing remotely snappy to say. The picture's dialogue is the laziest and least inspired of his career.

The idea is that Sophie not only charms Stanley, disguised as a traveling businessman, but disarms him with uncanny pronouncements. She conducts a séance in which he's unable to detect evidence of trickery. When Stanley drives Sophie to Provence to visit his aunt, he's stunned to hear her reveal details about a secret affair the woman once had.

But the most inexplicable thing the clairvoyant does is fall head over heels for Stanley. This is inexplicable for a number of reasons: He's nearly 30 years older than she is (oh, right, this is a Woody Allen movie); he's a pompous gasbag who quotes Nietzsche and tells her which books to read (oh, right...); and she's about to marry her patron's ukulele-playing son and go from penniless Midwesterner to globe-trotting millionairess.

Gradually Stanley revises his views. I suppose if Emma Stone threw herself at me, I'd believe there must be a God, too. He's such a pompous gasbag he even calls a press conference to announce his conversion and declare Sophie the real deal.

Then, like clockwork, something happens that puts everything we've seen over the previous hour in a new light. Later, something else equally predictable happens. And then those familiar white-on-black credits roll. Thank God.

The picture is beautifully shot by Darius Khondji, who also beautifully shot Allen's other French-set, supernaturally themed comedy, Midnight in Paris. Pictures of beautiful places are for postcards, though, and Magic in the Moonlight has appallingly little else to recommend it. Few, if any, laughs. Few, if any, new ideas. And nothing in terms of narrative we can't see coming a kilometer away.

It's well known that Allen keeps a box containing scraps of paper on which he's jotted movie ideas over the years. Having just endured 97 of the most lifeless, excruciatingly superficial minutes of my reviewing career, I feel it safe to say that the once- incomparable auteur has reached not merely the bottom of that box but the bottom of the cinematic barrel.