Review: ‘Magic In The Moonlight’ makes weak use of Colin Firth and Emma Stone

“Magic In The Moonlight” is one of those Woody Allen films.

You know the kind I mean. At this point, with Allen currently directing his 45th feature film, his pace has become as much a part of his daily life as breathing or dodging uncomfortable questions about his personal proclivities. He writes and directs one feature film after another, and some of them are good and some of them are terrible and occasionally one of them is so great it's ridiculous. Often, what we get are serviceable premises dressed up with recognizable actors who are just happy to get their turn to work with Allen, and the films end up feeling thin, like first drafts of something that might work.

In “Magic In The Moonlight,” Colin Firth plays Stanley, a stage magician who, in the grand tradition of Houdini, hates anyone who deals in spiritualism, and when his old friend Howard (Simon McBurney) shows up and tells him about a mysterious young woman named Sophie (Emma Stone) who is fleecing a wealthy family, Stanley can't resist the challenge. He lives to be able to puncture each new scam artist, and he happily joins Howard in the south of France, where Sophie and her mother (Marcia Gay Harden) are staying with a wealthy family. The mother Grace (Jacki Weaver) needs answers about her dead husband and his fidelity to her. The oldest son Brice (Hamish Linklater) is in love with Sophie and wants to marry her. They both plan to give Sophie and her mother vast sums of money to build and operate a foundation for research into Sophie's gifts. The clock is ticking, the tab is mounting, and Stanley is ready to prove this girl a fraud.

Without going any further into the plot mechanics, such as they are, suffice it to say there are no surprises here. That set-up should tell you everything you need to know about this one plays out, and part of what I found so irritating about the movie is how long it takes to get exactly where it looks like it's going from frame one. Emma Stone is the one who really has to make this thing fly or not, and she seems to be game for it. She tries as hard as she can, and Colin Firth that that exact charming/withering thing that he's perfected, and the two of them bounce off of each other amiably enough. But there's no heat between them at all, which seems like a major problem considering their relationship is the only thing of any importance in the film. The age difference is so drastic here that it feels like it would be creepy if Firth put even an ounce more energy into pursuing Stone, but without that, the film feels like it's on auto-pilot, driven by necessity rather than anything we actually see happen onscreen.

It wouldn't matter if the romance was soft if the film was funnier or if it was sharper about playing with the entire world of phony mediums and seances. There's plenty of potential there for really sharp comedy, but Allen's script just lobs softballs, and there are only a handful of scenes that have to do with Stone's supposed psychic gifts. Anything could have served as the reason to throw these two actors together based on how little they actually pay attention to the material about her being a phony psychic, and that's a huge problem. If you're not going to actually take advantage of this oh-so-specific era and really have fun with the con and the exposing of the con and the people who believed so fervently in these fakes, then why set a movie in that world at all? Why go through all the trouble inherent to making a period piece if you gain nothing at all from setting your story in that period.

Even Darius Khondji, a photographer whose work I admire greatly, seems like he's working at about half his normal capacity here. It looks fine, but there's nothing about the film, technically speaking, that seems any different than any other Allen film. It's certainly not a “bad” film, but it is an inconsequential one, and even people who adore the two movie stars may walk away feeling like they wasted their time. It feels more like an excuse for Allen to dress Emma Stone in a series of adorable outfits than an actual movie.

My advice if you love these actors is to watch every talk show appearance they make to promote the film. You'll have more fun, and at least in an interview, there's a chance that something might surprise you.

“Magic In The Moonlight” opens in theaters on Friday.