For most of his career, Woody Allen has been toggling between comedy and drama, sometimes within the same movie. But following his run of light comedies that ended about ten years ago, Allen has set up home base somewhere on that line between the two genres. Though a few of his recent efforts have gone for all-out laughs (Scoop, To Rome with Love), more often he undercuts his comedy with palpable anxiety or chases the serious stuff with a fatalistic shrug.
His last film, Blue Jasmine, flirted with tragedy while cracking the occasional dark joke. Magic in the Moonlight reverses that formula. In the beginning, it resembles the director’s previous throwaways (such as Curse of the Jade Scorpion), as it opens and lingers on a scene of a magician in Asian drag, wowing an early 20th century audience. Backstage, the magician is revealed to be an Englishman named Stanley (Colin Firth). Once out of makeup, he is revealed further to be a Firthian cold fish combined with an Allenish pessimist.
Though he’s a masterful creator of illusions, Stanley privately considers it all flim-flam, and has a sideline business in debunking anyone claiming to practice genuine mysticism. He includes the very notion of an afterlife under this heading, bitterly noting, like so many Allen characters before him, that our current existence is all we get.
The plot kicks in when Stanley’s brother Howard (Simon McBurney) summons him to the French countryside so that he can work his cranky pragmatism and debunk Sophie (Emma Stone), a spiritualist who has bewitched a rich family with her apparent link to the beyond. Brice (Hamish Linklater), the family’s “milksop” of a young son, is particularly smitten. She provides something of a puzzle for Stanley too: where his early put-downs have an amusing haughtiness, when he meets Sophie and dismisses her supposed clairvoyance and connections to the spirit world, the comedy weakens with repetition. Magic in the Moonlight begins to look like another of Allen’s charming but insubstantial rough draft.
Then something happens, to both Stanley and the film. Firth’s pomposity and Stone’s dizziness pair well, despite the semi-ludicrous age difference (Firth reads as somewhat younger than his actual 53, for what it’s worth). “Her smile is rather winning,” Stanley admits, and at that moment Allen’s tendency to have characters say exactly what they’re thinking regains its charm.
Indeed, who could argue that Emma Stone’s smile is not completely winning? After watching her do time in the Amazing Spider-Man series, she seems positively reprieved in a movie where conversations aren’t rushed through in between action sequences. Even when she and Firth aren’t saying much at all, they have a nice rapport, her big eyes seemingly perfect for receiving “mental impressions” about people she meets. Some of movie’s loveliest images simply frame Stone and Firth on opposite ends of the frame, sizing each other up, and looking especially bucolic via Darius Khondji’s lush cinematography, heavy on blues, greens, and golds.
These sumptuous colors inform the story’s rhythms, as Stanley begins to wonder, right on cue, whether Sophie may really possess supernatural gifts. At the same time, Allen pulls off a magic trick of his own: the movie’s design, slightly wan at first, deepens. The way the screenplay yokes together Stanley’s belief system and his initial inability to see that he may be falling for Sophie has an elegant, short-story-like simplicity, like Allen’s other film set in France, Midnight in Paris. That movie was slightly shorter and snappier than Magic in the Moonlight (not to mention funnier), and the extra minutes, however few, can make a difference for a filmmaker whose best movies tend to be short and sweet. Many of Allen’s ‘80s films had the courage to get in and out under 90 minutes, while this one feels a little thin even at 100.
That thinness doesn’t always detract from what the film does well. Magic in the Moonlight is less invested than Midnight in Paris in evoking the surface of France in the Roaring ‘20s than it is in clearly developing its own central idea. Here, Allen is searching for what we consider rational belief; late in the movie, Firth has a remarkable, non-comic solo scene where he makes this consideration explicit. This pursuit takes on extra dimension because of Allen’s age. He’s long said that he continues making movies as a way of busying himself in the face of death. Magic in the Moonlight makes a sweet case for other methods of doing the same.