No filmmaker’s oeuvre is as conducive to the categorization of ‘major’ and ‘minor’ works as Woody Allen’s. The writer/director/sometimes-actor has churned out a movie a year since 1982, and the question always remains the same: “Will this be Woody’s next masterpiece, or just a pleasant diversion?” Of course, the latter class of Allen film is almost always still worth seeing, but when we get one of the former class—recent years have spoiled us with “Blue Jasmine” and “Midnight in Paris”—it’s pure cinematic bliss.
“Magic in the Moonlight” is minor Allen — frothy and featherlight, an enjoyable but unmemorable summertime trifle. The trick is not to dwell on the fact that Allen is capable of more, to accept the movie for what it is. After all, no filmmaker this prolific bats a thousand; in fact, with his schedule, it’s a minor miracle that Allen almost never makes an outright stinker.
The movie is set on the French Riviera in the 1920s, but don’t think that means that the protagonist isn’t the usual Allen surrogate. Stanley (Colin Firth) transparently reflects both Allen’s restless atheism and his predilection for younger women. A famous magician who performs in yellow-face under the stage name Wei Ling Soo, Stanley is recruited to use his expertise on illusions to expose Sophie Baker, a young American (Emma Stone) purporting to be a legitimate psychic medium, as a fraud. But as he observes Sophie’s methods and gets to know her on a personal level, Stanley finds himself desperate to believe she’s the real deal, perhaps because he’s romantically taken with her.
Firth seems less like a natural fit for an Allen comedy than Stone, but he ends up finding better results. Perhaps because he doesn’t try to copy Allen’s trademark manner—as, say, Jesse Eisenberg in “To Rome with Love” or Jason Biggs in “Anything Else”—Firth gives Allen’s underlying neuroses a new kind of life. His typically reserved Englishman-y-ness blends surprisingly well with the material. Stone, on the other hand, is more reserved than usual, save for the scenes where Sophie practices her psychic readings, and one wonders if she would have fared better in a more Annie Hall-type role. Perhaps we won’t have to wait long to find out; she is starring in Allen’s next film, due out (you guessed it) next year.
The movie progresses at a leisurely pace, which is perfectly pleasurable when the actors are this charismatic. (In addition to Firth and Stone, the cast includes Hamish Linklater, Marcia Gay Harden, Eileen Atkins, and Simon McBurney.) But we get the sense that, beneath the surface, “Magic in the Moonlight” is a one-trick pony. Allen introduces the thematic construct of belief-versus-doubt and perfunctorily infers a connection to his own well-documented views on religion, and then basically just lets things simmer. He doesn’t flesh out the protagonist vis-à-vis the main theme, as in “Blue Jasmine,” or take the main theme to new self-reflexive heights, as in “Midnight in Paris.”
But why complain? Allen’s dialogue is as comforting an annual ritual as birthday cake, and on the visual side, cinematographer Darius Khondji once again outdoes himself, with warm, sun-soaked widescreen compositions. I’m as ready as any fan for Allen’s next major work, but this minor one will tide me over for another year just fine.