Correction appended, July 24, 2014
Woody Allen loves Fakery. That’s only natural: he performed magic tricks as a kid, and he’s spent nearly 50 years (since his screenplay for 1965’s What’s New Pussycat) in the movies, that technological conjuring trick that fools viewers into believing the impossible. Many of the 44 features he has written and directed revel in the con, either criminal or emotional, as 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, a minor comic diversion about séances and illusions that stacks up as not great, not awful but medium Woody.
A renowned magician who performs in Chinese makeup under the name Wei Ling Su, Stanley (Colin Firth) has a sideline exposing 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 Provence to debunk one Sophie Baker (Emma Stone), whose questionable psychic powers have beguiled a rich American (Jacki Weaver) and her son Brice (Hamish Linklater), a 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 cynicism about humanity. “We can’t go around deluding ourselves,” he tells Sophie. “But we must,” she urgently replies, “to get through life!”
On the eighth leg of his European film tour that began in England with the 2005 Match Point and continued through Spain (Vicky Cristina Barcelona), Italy (To Rome With Love) and France (Midnight in Paris and now this), the 78-year-old Allen also treks 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. It is also 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.
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 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 a soaked cat, but adorable–she’s a girl any man would want.
Question is, who would want Stanley? Described by Howard as “a genius with the charm of a typhus bug,” he is a sour pill, incapable of uttering a sentence without insulting 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. Yet Stanley is presented as a potential mate for Sophie. And when this odd couple gazes at the stars through an observatory’s open roof, they and we are meant to feel the magic in the moonlight.
You can see the movie 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 could easily slip into one of those old romantic comedies, 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 the young Woody Allen) to punch up the laugh lines. And the movie is like one of Sophie’s séances–except that the dead don’t speak, and most of the living never come to full, endearing life.
Correction: The original version of this story incorrectly referred to the title of a film by Woody Allen. The film is called To Rome With Love.
This appears in the August 04, 2014 issue of TIME.