A distracting disconnect runs through Woody Allen’s latest romantic comedy, Magic in the Moonlight (rated PG-13 for smoking—yes, smoking), that gives the viewer the uncomfortable sense that the celebrated director was simultaneously too aware of himself while writing the script and not aware enough.
To begin with the latter, the movie opens in 1928 on curmudgeonly stage magician Stanley Crawford (Colin Firth) accepting a job to debunk a psychic who has ingratiated herself with a wealthy American family. When Stanley arrives at their picturesque South of France estate, he immediately encounters the gawky, young medium (Emma Stone) and her steely-eyed manager/mother (Marcia Gay Harden).
For a few moments, Harden presents such an alluring picture of wary, sharp intellect, you look forward to seeing the spars of wit and clash of wills that will inevitably pass between these two titans of deception before they finally fall in love. Until, that is, it slowly dawns on you that Harden is not Firth’s intended love interest. Stone is.
From a purely surface point of view, it isn’t necessary for Allen to have his protagonist verbalize reasons for pursuing a relationship with the girlish, wide-eyed Sophie. From To Have and Have Not to As Good as It Gets Hollywood is famous for May-December romances. So while the 25-year-old Stone and 53-year-old Firth push the bounds of visual seemliness, their age asymmetry isn’t unprecedented. However, set within the background noise of Allen’s widely publicized personal life, Stanley’s ruminations on how Sophie will benefit from a connection with him strikes a particularly off-putting note.
Stanley, as we are frequently reminded by clunky, information-laden dialogue, is internationally recognized as an artistic genius; therefore, the girl will grow intellectually from exposure to his brilliance. Symbiotically, he argues, her fresh wonderment and appreciation of him will inspire him to greater works. When Henry Higgins made similar proclamations in Pygmalion, it was amusing because you never had the sense that Shaw actually agreed with him. With Allen, well, it is impossible, with such glaring invitation before us, to separate the man from the art.
But even without an unnerving sense that Allen is mounting some sort of defense with his script, Magic in the Moonlight fails due to its overt aspiration to be admired as a reflection on the nature of belief.
During drives in the French countryside where the sparks between Stone and Firth plummet and gutter even faster than the jokes, avowed atheist Stanley wonders what it would mean if Sophie’s supposed powers turn out to be real. For a time, taken in by the specificity of her knowledge of his past, he stops quoting Nietzsche and begins contemplating the Bible, wondering if the universe could indeed have a Creator.
It’s a blissful few scenes for Stanley, uplifted for the first time since childhood, when he indicted his parish minister as a snake-oil seller and took up stage magic, with the notion that there could be more to life than what we see. Previously a canker to all who know him, he leaves behind his acerbic realism and begins to indulge in such fanciful, plebeian activities as prayer. Though Firth plays this character arc as winsomely as he can, even his immense charm doesn’t allow the viewer to miss that this is a particularly nasty portrait of anyone who seriously follows any religion, equating faith in God and biblical doctrine with séances, ghostly vibrations, and other mystic claptrap.
Of course, in the end (spoiler alert!), Stanley gets a grip on himself, exposes Sophie, and, by extension, the Creator of the universe, as a fraud. The movie is so underdeveloped, however, as both a comedy and a romance, that it isn’t much of an indictment. You walk away with the feeling that the person who has been most exposed by this slight if scenic effort is Allen himself.
Listen to Megan Basham’s commentary on Magic in the Moonlight on The World and Everything in It: