There was one great performance holding together Woody Allen's previous film, Blue Jasmine (Cate Blanchett in the title role), and there are two of them in Magic in the Moonlight, a much lighter but equally more disposable follow-up, by newcomers to the director's ever-shifting company of actors. They're the lovely Emma Stone, yet again explaining her dazzling comic timing, and the ever-impeccable Colin Firth, injecting a flush of heart in the stereotypical stiff-upper-lip British fop. Together with a regal Eileen Atkins, note-perfect as an aunt who no longer cares about what others may think, Ms. Stone and Mr. Firth are the real reasons to see Mr. Allen's latest production.
This time, it's an agreeable but rather forgettable after-dinner mint set in the "roaring twenties" in the South of France, where perfectionist, exacting magician Stanley Crawford (Mr. Firth) is called in to unmask so-called psychic Sophie Baker (Ms. Stone), who has inveigled herself into the household of American steel barons, the Catledges. With magic yet again as a focal device for the plot (as in previous minor Allen entries The Curse of the Jade Scorpion and Scoop), Mr. Allen pits faith and reason against each other in a battle of wits that ends up with Sophie and Stanley falling head over heels for each other.
Clearly the main reference point (as, indeed, in the afore-mentioned films and many others in the director's oeuvre) is the screwball comedy of the 1930s and its mismatched couples who can't live with each other nor without each other. But the writer/director does not give Ms. Stone and Mr. Firth anything even close to, for instance, what Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant had to work with in the classic Bringing Up Baby; that they manage to infuse credibility and soul into these half-sketched characters and wit in the laboured, predictable situations is what raises Magic in the Moonlight from a lazy, assembly-line heritage comedy to something approaching a minor work derivative from earlier, better Allen movies. Even the typically excellent supporting cast is given virtually nothing to do - blink and you'll miss the usually so great Marcia Gay Harden, for instance. (And I can't help but think that Mr. Firth's Stanley is a direct take on Rex Harrison's immortal Professor Higgins from My Fair Lady, down to the entirely un-self-conscious misanthropy that shows up towards the film's denouement.)
Never a true visual stylist, Mr. Allen also seems again to be directing in auto-pilot, his widescreen pans and picture-postcard set-ups aiming at quoting and referencing genre but, along with Darius Khondji's lush, golden-hued lensing, and the period-appropriate work from designer Anne Seibel and costumer Sonia Grande, suggesting instead eye candy to distract from the flimsiness of the plot. There's precious little magic here, though at least the ending comes as a welcome surprise that bucks the bitter trend of the director's recent, more scathing work.
MAGIC IN THE MOONLIGHT
Cast Eileen Atkins, Colin Firth, Marcia Gay Harden, Hamish Linklater, Simon McBurney, Emma Stone, Jacki Weaver
Director and screenwriter Woody Allen; cinematographer Darius Khondji (colour, widescreen); designer Anne Seibel; costumes Sonia Grande; editor Alisa Lepselter; producers Letty Aronson, Stephen Tenenbaum and Edward Walson; production companies Gravier Productions and Dippermouth Productions, in association with Perdido Productions and Ske-Dat-De-Dat Productions
Screened August 27th 2014, UCI El Corte Inglés 12, Lisbon (distributor press screening)