Magic in the Moonlight Dir. Woody Allen

[Sony Pictures Classics; 2014]

Styles: comedy, romantic comedy
Others: Midnight in Paris, Alice

Woody Allen has become such a revered figure in the world of cinema with a rather hands-off approach that when certain actors get in front of his camera, they completely fall apart. Think of Kenneth Branagh’s stuttering, twitching work in Celebrity or Helen Hunt stumbling over the rapid-fire banter in The Curse of the Jade Scorpion.

Add to this ignominious list Colin Firth. The Oscar-winning actor, working with Allen for the first time on the director’s 44th film Magic In The Moonlight, is just a mess here, swinging far too hard at the mannered dialogue and coming across as an utter buffoon. That works fairly well for the film’s early scenes, when his character’s cynicism and bitterness hold sway. But he holds on to those qualities far too tightly when he’s supposed to be charming and awestruck.

This is important because, as the title should suggest, this is supposed to be a love story, albeit of a type that Allen resorts to often: a couple finding romance after initially being at odds with one another. The tension in Magic comes from Firth (playing Stanley, a famous magician), who has been contracted to debunk the work of Sophie, a spiritualist (Emma Stone) who may be defrauding a rich family living in pre-WWII France.

Firth watches this young woman closely, sputtering and rolling his eyes when she reveals personal information about his family and work, and also when she oversees a séance where she connects a widower with her husband’s spirit. He is eventually won over after she brings to light details about an affair his aunt had. But again, you never really get the sense that he is actually marveled by Sophie’s work. He still maintains the same stiff upper lip, clipped delivery, and furrowed brow that he had at the start of the picture.

The charm of this film then is left up to Stone, who is more than up to the task. Even with the often ring-a-ding, Fitzgerald-esque dialog foisted upon her, she is a delight, batting away Stanley’s concerns and trying to drag him out from under the cloud that hangs over his head. As she has proven in even the most overwrought films (I’m looking at you, Amazing Spider-Man), she is as charming and winning as ever.

We also must extend credit to Allen hitching his trailer again to the work of cinematographer Darius Khondji. As with Midnight in Paris and To Rome With Love, he completely romanticizes the beauty of the south of France, framing shots so that the rolling hills and the expanse of the Atlantic Ocean are allowed to shine. And unlike most other Allen films, Khondji actually allows the camera to move, gently swooping around certain scenes like the spirits that Sophie is trying to conjure up.

Beyond Firth’s uncomfortable performance — as well as those of many of the other bit players in the film — the biggest downfall is that for a film marketed as a romantic comedy, there aren’t a lot of laughs to be found. None of the zingers that Stanley and Sophie deliver have any sting to them, and the other attempts at humor provide nothing more than a knowing nod. You’ve seen Allen hit these same beats for decades now, and with much better success than this.

Still, even if you’re not a fan, Woody’s respectfully still out there, still cranking out work on an annual basis, and still carrying enough juice that he can pull in Oscar winners and “it” girls to star in his films. You just have to hope that he finds an actor who can elevate even his most overbaked scripts (Stone here, or Cate Blanchett in Blue Jasmine and Penelope Cruz in Vicky Cristina Barcelona). Otherwise, we’re going to be spending a lot of time just patting the aging director on the back and straining to be satisfied with what we’re given as a result.

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