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Magic in the Moonlight | Review

Hocus Pocus: Allen’s Latest a Re-hash of All-Too-Familiar Themes

Magic in the Moonlight Woody Allen Poster

Returning once more to the world of psychics and magicians to inform his breezy comedic styling, Woody Allen’s latest, Magic in the Moonlight, plays like the slight reconnoitering of a slew of other past titles from his filmography. While this is often a critique lobbed at Allen’s perennial offerings, his latest is a surprisingly uncharismatic and uninvolving recapitulation of the kinds of schemes he used in The Curse of the Jade Scorpion (2001), Scoop (2006), and a few others. If those are your favored Allen titles, then perhaps this one will be a pleasing trifle. However, whereas generally Allen applies a zany, broad streak to these scenarios, here we’re pared down to a quietly developing (and unlikely) romance between its two leads.

Wei Ling Soo, a famed Chinese conjurer in 1920’s Berlin, is actually the stage persona of a pompous and pretentious Englishman by the name of Stanley (Colin Firth). He’s also a famous debunker of phony spiritualists, and so it’s no surprise when an old friend, Howard Burkan (Simon McBurney) appears with a mission for Stanley. Whisking him away to the Cote d’Azur mansion of the Catledge family, Stanley meets a sprightly young clairvoyant named Sophie Baker (Emma Stone), traveling with her mother (Marcia Gay Harden). Sophie has been contacting the dead husband of Grace (Jacki Weaver), and her son, Brice (Hamish Linklater) has fallen in love with the young vagabond and aims to marry her. Thankfully, Stanley’s Aunt (Eileen Atkinson) lives nearby, a welcome correspondence while he tries to figure out just how the wily young maiden is faking her powers before she manages to charm him into reticence as well.

A generous dose of Beethoven and Stravinsky lead us through Stanley’s Wei Ling Soo act, with Firth hidden behind a Fu Manchu mount. It’s a scenario ripe for comedic plucking, leading one to hope for a little of that Bullets Over Broadway magic intersecting with the David Ogden Stiers angle of Jade Scorpion. Yet, it’s not to be, as we’re whisked out of 1920’s Berlin to the subdued and isolated opulence of the French Riviera.

The general nebbishness generally dominating Allen’s male leads is completely absent here with Firth in full blown narcissistic misanthrope mode. Of course, this is meant to compliment Stone’s sugary sweetness, the binaries finally aligning for the predictable opposites attract outcome. And yet, it all rings incredibly false here, a crowd of supporting characters from Jackie Weaver to Marcia Gay Harden to Simon McBurney splayed out with a deflated bustle, while Hamish Linklater is saddled with playing a buffoonish caricature in a performance embarrassing to behold. And so we’re left stuck in the glare of the absent chemistry between an addlepated Firth and a cutesy Emma Stone and none of it generally seems to amount to much. While generally the voice of reason, Firth’s Stanley is simply too off-putting. To have Stone’s Sophie Baker fall in love with him seems merely a lesser evil than marrying a vapid millionaire intent on composing silly ditties in her honor.

Not nearly as off-putting as something like his To Rome With Love, Allen’s Magic in the Moonlight is missing that enchanting component it promises so eagerly in its title because any semblance of it has been conjured away.

★★½/☆☆☆☆☆

Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is IONCINEMA.com's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), FIPRESCI, the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2023: The Beast (Bonello) Poor Things (Lanthimos), Master Gardener (Schrader). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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