Lesser Woody

Colin Firth shines, but overall, Magic in the Moonlight is definitely not among Woody Allen's best

After watching enough Woody Allen comedies, the seams start to reveal themselves. Allen, who has written and directed 40 films in the last 40 years, moves very, very quickly. And because of that pace, which is unmatched by any other great filmmaker of his era, Allen finds himself walking over the same patch of comedic grass now and then.

It's usually not something major, but it's very common to find his characters talking more about Nietzsche and Freud than other moviefolk do, and the existential themes are pretty prominent, even when a neurotic Woody substitute isn't on screen. It's his convenient fall-back. And as it turns out, one of the worst things you can say about his new film, Magic in the Moonlight, is that some of it is on autopilot.

On the other hand, this is his best male-female sparring match in a while, with a famous magician and skeptic doing battle with a cute-as-a-bug medium in 1920s France. Stanley (Colin Firth) is better-known to the world as the bald Chinese illusionist Wei Ling Soo. A fellow magician has invited him to the South of France to crack the code he could not: How on Earth does young Sophie (Emma Stone) divine so much? When she meets the inflexible magician, she still gets the answers correct, guessing that China plays a part in his career, that he had just worked in Germany, and the name and dead-on description of his fiancée.

For Stanley, this is a crisis. Not only does he believe with every fiber of his being that Sophie is practicing fakery for which there must be a good explanation, but each new revelation she plucks from thin air also paints his atheistic, scientific worldview into a tinier corner. Stanley is, for all practical purposes, the surrogate for Woody Allen. The filmmaker's nonbelief is fairly well-known, so much so that it might influence the way you think about the second act of this film: Is this some sort of late-life awakening for Allen? Are epiphanies about faith healing and psychic surgery soon to follow?

As Stanley's weeks-long investigation into supernatural claims unfolds against the sun-kissed French countryside, he finds himself as enraptured by the young American mystic as he is perplexed by her abilities. But for Stanley, love is the antithesis of logic. He is not prone to sweeping pronouncements of his feelings, or for that matter, handy with a compliment; at one point he tells Sophie she looks her best around 8:20 p.m., when the light is quite a bit dimmer. At dusk, he says, she has "agreeable features."

The dialogue—which in the many bad broad comedies Allen made in the 1990's and early 2000's would always still sound like it was written for Alvy Singer from Annie Hall—is much stronger in Moonlight once the rails are greased a little bit. There are a few uncomfortable scenes in the beginning that are far too expository, chock full of nothing but introductions, but business picks up appreciably when Firth and Stone start to go toe-to-toe.

It has already been announced that Stone will work with Woody Allen again in 2015, this time opposite Joaquin Phoenix in a drama. But Magic in the Moonlight is really Colin Firth's magic trick. He has shown for some time a very easy grasp of highbrow comedy, even when it's just lighthearted moments in more serious work. He's simply a lot of fun to watch here, hurling insults at just about everybody. So even though Magic in the Moonlight is Lesser Woody—a pretty flimsy movie with lots of familiar touches plus a dozen or so great jabs—seeing Firth embody such an indefatigably upper-crust twit is worth the leisurely 90-minute stroll.

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