If “Magic in the Moonlight” were shot in a scratchier black & white film stock, didn't feature current actors and TCM presented it as a “lost movie from the late 1930s,” few would doubt that claim. This is very much high praise. Many of Woody Allen's works have been set in this time period (“The Purple Rose of Cairo,” “Sweet and Lowdown,” “The Curse of the Jade Scorpion”) but none have attempted to actually be a movie from that era, and at first blush “Magic in the Moonlight” really does feel like a time capsule.
But beneath the surface this deceivingly light romantic comedy set on the French Riviera has the grace notes of a melancholy examination about faith vs. reason, self-deception and people who preemptively louse up relationships in a misguided attempt to protect themselves. It's buried a bit beneath the witty banter and luxurious location, but that's why Woody Allen is a genius. This picture isn't as showy or obvious as one of his (many) masterpieces, but it is quite good and deserves your time and respect.
Colin Firth, with the poise of pre-Hollywood Denholm Elliott and the vocal mannerisms of John Cleese, stars as Stanley, an internationally renown magician by night and a skeptic/debunker by day. His performances, in the guise of “Wei Ling Soo,” an illusionist from the Orient, are the toast of Europe. After a show in Berlin, his old chum and fellow magician (Simon McBurney) approaches him with a problem.
You see, he's been hired by the daughter & son-in-law in a wealthy family to “observe” an invited interloper to their compound in the South of France. The recently widowed mother (Jacki Weaver) and somewhat priggish son (Hamish Linklater) are both smitten (in different ways) by Emma Stone's Sophie, who claims to be a soothsayer and medium to the spirit world. She and her mother (Marcia Gay Harden) are close to securing a large financial gift from Weaver for an “institute of clairvoyant study,” in addition to a marriage into the family. The problem is this: McBurney can't seem to figure out how Stone is doing the tricks.
Despite Firth's own encroaching nuptials, he takes the challenge and faster than you can say “motorcar on the Côte D'Azure” we're off to a world of champagne, parties and high threadcount seances. As it happens, Firth grew up in the area with his tell-it-like-it-is spinster Aunt Vanessa (Eileen Atkins), an 80 year old theater actress who, as I'm sure doesn't surprise you, steals ever scene.
Atkins' quotable turn, though, isn't the only delight. Everyone is dripping with bon mots, even young Emma Stone. Oftentimes a Woody Allen film in which he does not appear has a clear role for his persona. See Kenneth Branagh in “Celebrity” or John Cusack in “Bullets Over Broadway."
That is not the case here, and his screenplay is a remarkably droll and extremely British affair that is wonderfully suited for Firth's weary and vaguely nihilistic magician. He is a man too dandy to ever get angry (heaven forbid!), but his is a cloudy soul and finds no meaning in a Godless universe without miracles. Naturally, it takes but a few hours with Stone's young Sophie for him to become 100% convinced that, yes, magic is real. His embrace of faith over reason in a swift transformation, and he becomes a happy man.
There follows a series of twists that only a jerk would spoil, followed by a perfect and rewarding ending. Will you come away believing in magic? That all depends on how much mileage you get from sun-dappled views of the Mediterranean over swells of early jazz. As an avowed Woody Allen fan, I fell for the trick.