A blithe entry from Allen after last year’s “Blue Jasmine,” the film is an old-fashioned, breezy romp with a splash of angst. It contains familiar ingredients: jazzy music, magicians, a 1920s Europe setting, middle-aged grumps wooing spirited young women and people exclaiming things like “I’ll catch pneumonia!” when trapped in the rain.
Colin Firth plays Stanley, an illusionist who, when not appearing onstage with a Fu Manchu mustache and the moniker “Wei Ling Soo,” is a haughty British misanthrope and steadfast rationalist.
Invited by his colleague Howard (Simon McBurney), Stanley visits a wealthy family in the South of France to debunk a suspected phony spiritualist named Sophie (Emma Stone). Along with her mother (Marcia Gay Harden), Sophie may be swindling the estate’s widowed matriarch (Jacki Weaver) and charming her way to a marriage proposal from the old woman’s besotted, ukulele-strumming son (Hamish Linklater).
Stanley quickly deems Kalamazoo-bred Sophie a transparent fake, but her mind-reading acts stump him. Is she genuine? That thought and his growing feelings for her — as he tries to culture the young woman and teach her about that “God is dead fellow” Nietzsche — unnerve him.
Thus isn’t premium Allen, and the love story fares poorly. Sophie and Stanley, while their banter is winning, aren’t believable as partners. Nor can you buy the trajectory and outcome of the romance. After turning the rom-com topsy-Woody in so many past glories, Allen delivers a rulebook plot and artificial sunshine.
But combining wit, humor and his trademark focus on the workings of the heart, Allen has still made an enjoyable enough diversion. And when Stanley’s existential crisis occurs, the film becomes a deeper exploration of the role delusion plays, whether in romantic love or belief in the unknown, in our ability to cope and thrive. Never one for cosmic questing, Allen continues to score with the idea that sometimes it all comes down to the right two people looking in each other’s eyes.
Firth, whose Stanley is part Henry Higgins, part Mr. Darcy and part Allen surrogate, creates an entertaining misanthrope with enough buried worth to keep us caring.
Stone, radiantly lit by cinematographer Darius Khondji and displaying a screwball quality reminiscent of heroines of old, is amusing as her character, gesturing with her hands and waxing trancelike with her eyes, demonstrates her “mental vibrations.”
Eileen Atkins, wonderful as Stanley’s perceptive aunt, stands out among the underused supporting cast.
Magic in the Moonlight
Starring Colin Firth, Emma Stone, Eileen Atkins, Simon McBurney
Written and directed by Woody Allen
Running time: 1 hour, 37 minutes