'Magic in the Moonlight': Woody Allen's slight of hand
The red 1925 Alfa Romeo roadster is beautiful. The clothes - flapper frocks, bespoke smoking jackets, creamy tennis getups, jaunty hats - are likewise lovely. The scenery? Can you go wrong with the Cote d'Azur, the gardens of Provence?
But for all its visual delights, Magic in the Moonlight, the 44th feature written and directed by the admirably industrious Woody Allen, has to be one of his bigger duds.
A mostly mirthless comedy, a sparkless romance, Magic in the Moonlight begins in a Berlin cabaret, where master illusionist Stanley Crawford (Colin Firth) is doing his act, costumed as the Chinese sleight-of-hand maestro Wei Ling Soo. He saws a leggy assistant in half; he makes an elephant disappear. The audience gasps and claps accordingly.
The year is 1928, and you almost expect Liza Minnelli's Sally Bowles to slink nervously into the room. (She doesn't, but the Westphalian Kurt Weill interpreter Ute Lemper does, entertaining the crowd when Wei Ling Soo is not.)
Backstage, after Stanley has doffed his Oriental silks and Fu Manchu maquillage, an old friend and colleague (Simon McBurney) begs him to take an assignment. A dazzling American is offering psychic forecasts in the south of France. Her mystic mumbo jumbo has seduced the wealthy Catledge clan, and she needs to be exposed for the fraud she surely is.
Stanley, we are told, is "the greatest debunker of fake spiritualists in the world" (his Yelp reviews will attest to this). Could he be persuaded to visit the Catledges, observe this "pretty young thing" Sophie Baker (the Children of the Damned-eyed Emma Stone), and disillude the moneyed folk under her spell?
Of course he could.
And, of course, Stanley will himself be seduced - after the requisite walk-and-talks filled with wary inquiry, wry asides. All Sophie has to do is scrunch her nose, flap her hands, and strike a pose in a diaphanous dress that the dusking sun illumines just so.
Allen, an amateur magician since he was Alvy Singer-age back in Brooklyn, has made other movies in which magic figures prominently. It's curious to note, though, that his most literal and overt salutes to the prestidigitory arts have been among his weakest endeavors: Scoop (Woody and Scarlett Johansson, and a bust), The Curse of the Jade Scorpion, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger . . . thud, thud, thud.
With Magic in the Moonlight, Allen has performed a vanishing trick himself, making the throwaway gags and snappy one-liners to which we're accustomed disappear from his screenplay. The silence in the theater where I attended a preview screening was deafening.
Despite Stanley's insistence, at a certain juncture in the proceedings, that "there really was something between us - some chemistry, some magic," there really wasn't. Zip. Nada. And if the leading lady and leading man can't create that illusion, well, the trapdoors and pulleys, the smoke and mirrors become very obvious, very fast.