Even for a Woody Allen film, Magic in the Moonlight has an almost unbearable amount of dialogue. Allen's 49th feature-length release is a reminder that when you pump out a movie annually, you are bound to miss on occasion -- that you are that much more susceptible to your worst habits and ticks than other directors.
Magic in the Moonlight stars Colin Firth and Emma Stone as both adversaries and potential paramours. Stone plays Sophie Baker, a psychic medium of humble means who is holed up with a wealthy American family on their palatial estate in the south of France. Through seances and "mental vibrations," she purports to communicate with the spirit world, most importantly with the dead husband of the family's matriarch, Grace, who is played by Jacki Weaver. She has also caught the eye of Grace's son Brice (Hamish Linklater), a ukelele-strumming fool who proposes marriage within the first few scenes of the film and can offer her a life of unparalleled luxury.
Enter Firth, who arrives at the estate with one mission: to expose Sophie as a fraud. Firth's character, Stanley, is a world-renowned magician who goes by the stage name Wei Ling Soo. Hey, it's set in the 1920s. Yellowface, among many other unsavory practices, was accepted. When he's not touring Europe, one of his hobbies, apparently, is debunking supposed mediums. How can he resist this challenge, then, when even one of his oldest magician friends Howard Burkan (Simon McBurney) seems to have been outwitted by the ingenue?
The more we learn of Firth's character, the more impossible the notion that he would balk at this challenge becomes. Stanley is a windbag, a man who pronounces his belief in reason, logic and rational thinking any chance he can get and to anyone who will listen. Allen attempts to frame Stanley's pomposity as a cover for a deep melancholy -- an aimlessness that leads to a deep, permanent irritability. Firth is, of course, an avatar for Allen's own neuroses, and while those can be charming and honest in his best films, they aren't with this particular character.
Stanley reminds me of the joke about how you spot a vegan at a party. "Don't worry, they'll tell you," is the punchline. He might not have pretentious eating habits, but his certainty that there is no metaphysical world fits in with the spirit of the joke. Of course, Stanley might not be so grating had Allen given him or any of his other characters something to do.
Within the first 15 minutes of the film or so, Firth arrives in the south of France and scoffs at Stone's "vibrations" schtick. We even get to see Brice composing a ukelele melody for Sophie. And then ... they all pretty much just keep on talking to each other for the duration of the film. Firth's character is ever the skeptic. Stone is a seemingly well-meaning prodigy. They drive around in a vintage car from the era with the beautiful French coastline in the background and smile at each other, sparring verbally every once in awhile.
There's a painful inertia to the whole affair. Firth and Stone's characters eventually start saying different things to each other -- vocalizing some sort of character development -- but there's never anything beyond their words to really make their apparent changes of heart believable. Because of that, the usually snappy dialogue takes on an uncharacteristic weight (and I mean weight in the being-sucked-into-quicksand sense). Both characters, in their own way, are bullshit artists, so maybe that makes a certain degree of sense, but their have certainly been more lovable bullshit artists in cinematic history than these two.
Beyond the lack of noteworthy plot points, there's a staleness to Magic in the Moonlight. Allen paid ample tribute to the 1920s in Midnight in Paris. Emma Stone sure looks terrific as a flapper, but so did Marion Cotillard. And he just did the delusional middle-aged antihero thing with Blue Jasmine. Firth is delusional in an entirely different way than Cate Blanchett was in that film, but he's every bit as unlikable.
It's hard to root for anyone in Magic in the Moonlight, and the mystery of Stone's supposedly telepathic powers don't really add much suspense to the film. Firth's character vocalizes a sneering disdain that doesn't -- not even for a moment -- let you think she might be the real deal, even if Stanley himself seems to think she might be.
Allen's occasionally magic touch is nowhere to be found here. Better luck next year.