Woody Allen at nearly 80 is still cranking out a film a year, but not with the success he had in the ’70s (“Annie Hall,” “Sleeper” and “Manhattan”) or ’80s (“Hannah and Her Sisters” and “Crimes and Misdemeanors”). Nuggets such as “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” show up about every third or fourth off, but with the recent near hits of “Midnight in Paris” and “Blue Jasmine,” by math alone “Magic in the Moonlight” is not in that sweet spot. It’s a great-looking film, scrumptiously shot by Darius Khondji, who’s framed most of Allen’s recent works, and well acted, but something in the plot just never works.
Colin Firth gets a big scene-chewing role as Stanley Crawford, a 1920s illusionist who takes the stage as a Fu Manchu-like incarnation known as the Great Wei Ling Soo. He wows audiences, making elephants disappear and sawing women in half and, like Houdini did in his time, debunks hoaxes, which Stanley agrees to do when fellow magician Howard Burkan (Simon McBurney) asks him to come to a country villa in France to expose a young American woman shaking down a susceptible and well-off widow (Jackie Weaver). The young American woman in question, Sophie Baker, is played by none other than Emma Stone, a big-eyed cutie with auburn locks and by logistical association alone muse du jour to Allen. But she’s no Diane Keaton, not even a Mia Farrow or Mia Sorvino, for that matter. She’s game, but asked to do a lot with a little and beyond her range. Thankfully she has Firth to play off of, and he’s masterful. Initially when the game is afoot in the gorgeous greenery of Southern France, there’s promise and a playfulness in the air. The film suggests twist and turns to come, false reveals and oneupmanship, but then romance floats into the picture, and the notion of god too. What a buzzkill.
The chemistry between Firth and Stone has a foisted feel, but it’s not truly their fault. They’re likable enough – and Firth’s hubris and braggadocio makes for a great period character – but just don’t have a story worthy of their potential. It’s almost as if Allen set out to make one movie and in the process of penning it, had a nostalgic, romantic yen that he let consume the second half of the script. It becomes indulgent and uninteresting. We all want love, and this is the very milieu that Allen at his best employs hyperbole and pops with sharp, deprecating humor, but nothing comes. And that’s what’s missing: There is no zing. Firth, as the elegant lion, holds it together for a good time, but left to chew on a shoe for too long, even a well-mannered lion will roar with contempt.