No film character is riper for a take-down than the cynic with a sharp tongue, the nonbeliever whose only god is his own intellect. What other people search for — love, happiness, victory in the Hunger Games — he’s sure is a sham or a scam. This prideful man must fall, not because he’s wrong but because his world view goes against the central notion of movies: a technological conjuring trick that fools viewers into believing the impossible. The cynic calls himself a realist, but he is only fooling himself; his disillusion is his most desperate illusion. At heart he’s just an idealist who has lost his faith and needs redemption. He wants a sign: a lovely woman’s smile, or the sight of stars through the open roof of an observatory. Some magic in the moonlight, even.
This week’s cynic is Stanley (Colin Firth), a renowned magician who performs in Chinese makeup under the name Wei Ling Su. On stage he creates trickery; off stage he exposes it, in a sideline job of debunking phonies who claim mystic powers, “from the séance table to the Vatican and beyond.” At the urging of his old friend and rival conjurer Howard (Simon McBurney), Stanley journeys to the South of France to debunk one Sophie Baker (Emma Stone), whose questionably psychic powers have beguiled a rich American (Jacki Weaver) and her son Brice (Hamish Link-later), a sweet, ukulele-strumming oaf who calls Sophie “a visionary and a vision.” For Stanley it will be a solemn duty to unmask the fraud, if such she is, and thus confirm his devout misanthropy.
(READ: Belinda Luscombe's 10 Questions with Colin Firth)
Woody Allen could be the anti-Stanley: he can see through fakery but still loves the sly craft that created the illusion. That’s only natural: Allen performed magic tricks as a kid, and he’s spent nearly 50 years (since his screenplay for the 1965 What’s New Pussycat) in the con-art of movies. Many of the 44 features he has written and directed revel in deception, either criminal or emotional. His characters pretend to be what they’re not, taking down more gullible souls and often stealing their hearts. That’s the theme of Magic in the Moonlight, and the title cues viewers to which side of the debate Allen is on: some call it fraud, he says enchantment. A minor comic diversion about séances and illusions, the film stacks up as not great, not awful but medium Woody.
Magic in the Moonlight marks the eighth leg of Allen's European film tour, which began in England with the 2005 Match Point (followed by Scoop, Cassandra's Dream and You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger) and expanded the itinerary to include Spain (Vicky Cristina Barcelona), Italy (From Rome With Love) and France (Midnight in Paris and now this). The movie also sends the 78-year-old writer-director into the gilded past: to the Côte d’Azur in 1928, when the Corniche highways were still dirt roads and, apparently, the prices were so high that the French couldn’t afford to live there. The film’s main characters are all American and English — the idle rich and their guests — who populated Tender Is the Night, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Gatsby on the Riviera.
(READ: Corliss on Baz Luhrmann's The Great Gatsby)
This is the fantasy, familiar in the Allen oeuvre, of an older man (Firth is 53) falling for a young woman (Stone is 25) who is not straitjacketed, as he is, by intellect. Or Stanley might be Allen’s take on Henry Higgins, from Shaw’s Pygmalion and Lerner and Loewe’s My Fair Lady: a haughty bachelor who, to win a bet, gets involved with a girl he first has contempt for, then comes to appreciate. As Stanley all but tells his worldly Aunt Vanessa (Eileen Atkins) while musing about Sophie, he’s grown accustomed to her face. And who could not love Stone, of the ginormous eyes and husky voice? As a chic psychic chick in sailor dress and beret — or, after a rainstorm, looking like the most adorable soaked cat — she’s a girl any man would want.
(READ: a love letter to Emma Stone)
Question is, who’d want Stanley? Though he strike a handsome figure in his three-piece vanilla suit, he fits his lifelong chum Howard's description as “a genius with the charm of a typhus bug.” He's a sour pill, incapable of uttering a single sentence without inserting some clause that insults the whole universe. Firth, working hard to suppress his patented bonhomie, gives the impression of having been force-fed the personality he’s supposed to inhabit. Like the downtrodden plutocrat played by Cate Blanchett in Allen’s Blue Jasmine, Stanley is a social miscreant — bad company for the other characters and a chore for the audience to engage with.
(READ: Corliss's review of Blue Jasmine)
Yet Stanley is presented as a potential mate for Sophie, as the perfect attractive opposite. The movie suggests that Stanley is the callow one, and Sophie the wiser, more mature soul, when he harrumphs, “We can’t go around deluding ourselves,” and she urgently replies, “But we must, to get through life!” At the end of a sojourn when everything has gone wrong, and this odd couple gazes up at the night sky, they and we are meant to feel the moonlight magic. Allen may not believe in mystics, but he does believe in the eternal truth of movie love.
You can see the film as a Brooklyn boy’s dream of a vanished civilization — all swank frocks and lawn parties — that perhaps existed only in the buoyant films he loved as a child, and beyond. Firth and Stone channel that poise and appeal; they could easily slip into a Golden Age rich-boy–clever-girl romantic comedy like Preston Sturges' The Lady Eve. And Allen gets points for trying to revive the glamour, wit and heart of classic Hollywood at a time when other filmmakers just want to duplicate last year’s superhero smash. But the script lacks brio; it needs someone — perhaps Sturges, or the young Woody Allen — to punch up the laugh lines.
The audience is left hoping, like participants in one of Sophie’s séances, that a dead genre will somehow come alive in its full flower of wit and charm. It doesn't, quite, except in its creator's eyes. Which makes him the gullible party. This time, Woody Allen has fooled himself.