In the sumptuous opening to Magic in the Moonlight, there is real magic, both on the stage—with a couple of grand illusions from a magic show—and in the film, which enchantingly captures the swank and style of Europe in the 1920s. The magician is Wei Ling Soo, who creates an exotic ambience with his Fu Manchu mustache and mysterious Orientalism. But Wei is actually a caustic Englishman named Stanley (Colin Firth). Stanley is based on a real magician—William Ellsworth Robinson—who created an oriental stage persona to outdo the famed Chinese magician Ching Ling Foo, an early international sensation (their real-life rivalry was an inspiration for The Prestige).
This is worth mentioning only because the rest of the film fritters away all the glamour and intrigue of its first few scenes. Written and directed by Woody Allen, this tame period piece does not grow in narrative cleverness like Midnight in Paris; instead, it plods onward to its unsurprising conclusion with the blandest of flourishes.
The effervescent set-up hints at a mystery story, possibly one with unforeseeable romantic twists. Like Robinson, Stanley is renowned for debunking spiritualists. Backstage in Berlin, Stanley’s old magician friend, Howard (Simon McBurney), asks him to help out a family he knows in the South of France who have fallen under the spell of a young spirit medium. The family matriarch (Jacki Weaver) is giving the girl money, and her son (Hamish Linklater) has fallen in love with her. Howard himself has not been able to see through the girl’s tricks and is in danger of becoming a believer himself.
And so condescending, curmudgeonly Stanley—whose deprecations early in the film are the most amusing—becomes part of the same social idyll as Sophie (Emma Stone), an apparently naive ingénue with the gift of sight and communing with the dead. Sophie is especially communicative with the very dead but dearly missed husband of the matriarch (Weaver is understandably ghastly as a moronic moneybags).
While flummoxed by Sophie’s psychic abilities, Stanley begins to question his own arrogant rationalism, even his atheism. Charmed by her receptiveness, he gradually opens up to the mysteries of the universe, abetted by the encouragement of his wise, wealthy and pithy Aunt Vanessa (Eileen Atkins), who conveniently lives nearby.
Atkins could play this character in her sleep; even so, she is the most interesting character to be found by the Cote d’Azur. Firth and Stone have no chemistry whatsoever, and Stone has somehow been made moribund by Allen’s direction. She is unconvincing and seemingly sanitized of the offbeat comic talent she showed in Zombieland. Meanwhile, nattering and nitpicking in the usual way of Allen’s leading men does not come naturally to Firth, and his inherent elegance and assurance are at odds with Stanley’s drift into befuddlement. This is most disastrously apparent when Stanley’s car stalls out in a storm and he is helpless to restart it. Firth even rounds his classically broad shoulders in awkward imitation of Allen’s trademark slouch.
The mystery of Sophie’s clairvoyance is disappointingly predictable, as is her being smitten with Stanley despite being half his age. Because of Allen’s personal history, the age difference (and the utter unawareness of it among the other characters) is more noticeable than it might have been in another director’s romantic comedy; however, the dialogue becomes unpleasantly strained as their romantic foibles progress, and what’s meant to be delightfully dithery comes off as smarmy. Despite the evocative settings and spot-on vintage art direction, this magic act has nothing up its sleeve.