Many a formula has been applied to Woody Allen’s catalogue over the years. ‘Every other of his films are poor’ is a common theory, as is the one that permits him two well received films per decade. The odds were stacked against Magic in the Moonlight from the off, given the roaring success of Allen’s last film Blue Jasmine and the throng of awards that it won its lead actress Cate Blanchett.
Promise however was to be found in its two leads; Colin Firth in turn flits between credible roles and waffling flops but Emma Stone has maintained an upward stride with a strong selection of blockbuster hits and likeable comedies. Returning to an idyllic vision on the 1920s, last visited in Midnight in Paris, Allen drives his story south to the French coast, where foul play is afoot.
Firth is a showy and cynical illusionist performing under the name of Wei Ling Soo, who travels to the French Rivera on a mission to expose a young clairvoyant whom he believes to be a fraud. On arriving he finds Stone’s Sophie, a serene, sincere beauty with an apparent gift of contacting the deceased and reading into people’s pasts.
Some days into his visit Firth’s Stanley finds himself reassessing every aspect of his beliefs at the hands of the charming Sophie, emerging from the grey mist of logic to, at one point literally, smelling the roses. His bristling demeanour becomes the object of Sophie’s affections in spite of her being involved with an ukulele playing sap named Brice (Hamish Linklater), although this is wasted on Stanley who is in awe of her skill set and blind to her appeal.
Woody Allen’s script relentlessly darts between sassy and silly; Firth barking that Sophie is an impertinent Lilliputian perfectly embodies the tepid resentment that accompanies Stanley from start to finish, while Stone is provided with a surefire answer for anything that he flings her way.
In terms of narrative very little happens; the plot succumbs to a smattering of twists and turns but mostly this is a film about how a man responds when his beliefs are tested amongst a sequence of luxurious interiors and dreamlike vistas. As with Midnight in Paris, Magic in the Moonlight is incredibly romantic, with an obvious appreciation of the era and location present. Stone is undeniably ravishing as the confident though slightly gawky mystic and is adored on screen as she reflects the idyllic settings that Allen has captured.
There is nothing particularly outrageous or cutting about Magic in the Moonlight, serving instead as a pleasant and decadent romance with a meandering protagonist and an attractive supporting cast. Stanley’s musings are familiar and not of this time, and the big reveal is fleeting, so those hoping for a jagged and relentless examination of faith and belief may be left short with this safe, contained comedy.