By Damon Smith
Starring Colin Firth and Emma Stone. Released September 19 (UK & Ireland)
There is a soupcon of magic and moonlight but considerably more insecurities and bluster in Woody Allen’s playful yet lightweight romantic comedy set on the sun-kissed 1920s French Riviera.
The writer-director’s frequent forays away from his beloved New York to European soil have been decidedly hit-and-miss affairs and Magic in the Moonlight disappoints more than it delights.
Allen affectionately evokes the era from the opening croon of the Cole Porter classic You Do Something To Me performed by Leo Reisman & His Orchestra, and the writer-director loads the soundtrack with upbeat jazzy tunes that telegraph the characters’ emotions like You Call It Madness (But I Call It Love) by Smith Ballew and His Piping Rock Orchestra to underscore a blossoming central romance.
Regrettably, sparkling one-liners are in short supply on the Cote d’Azur and the on-screen chemistry between Colin Firth and Emma Stone is lukewarm, never threatening to set our pulse racing like her smouldering pairings with Ryan Gosling in Crazy, Stupid, Love or real-life beau Andrew Garfield in The Amazing Spider-Man.
The film opens in 1928 Berlin, where magician Stanley Crawford (Firth) delights a sell-out audience in his guise as Chinese conjuror Wei Ling Soo.
Backstage, he berates his crew for their incompetence and lives up to the description of his best and perhaps only friend Howard Burkan (Simon McBurney) as “a genius with all the charm of a typhus epidemic”.
Howard entreats Stanley to accompany him to the Riviera to debunk a psychic medium called Sophie Baker (Emma Stone), who has promised to help wealthy widow Grace Catledge (Jacki Weaver) make contact with her late husband.
In return, Grace has pledged to fund an expensive institute fronted by Sophie’s mother (Marcia Gay Harden).
Swatting aside warnings about Sophie’s beauty – “A pretty face never hurt a cheap swindler,” retorts Stanley dryly – the magician bids fond farewell to his fiancée (Catherine McCormack) and heads for the Catledge villa posing as businessman Stanley Taplinger.
In no time at all, Stanley is almost as smitten with Sophie as Grace’s lovesick son Brice (Hamish Linklater) and the celebrated magician struggles to find a rational explanation for her boggling feats of mind-reading and clairvoyance.
Magic in the Moonlight is a valentine to Allen’s lifelong fascination with tricks and illusions, and he engineers one moment of misdirection to quickly untangle the knotty central plot.
An even bigger trick would be convincing us that Firth and Stone make a perfect match but it’s doubtful Houdini could have pulled off that gross deception.
Supporting cast, who have a canny knack of scoring Oscar nominations in Allen’s work, are subdued, even Eileen Atkins in the plum role of Firth’s straight-talking aunt, who can sniff romance on her nephew like cheap cologne.