When the divisive nature of, well, pretty much everything gets you down, and you don’t want to watch a movie and debate the issues in it, rest assured that the gentle tug of war between the seen and unseen world is all that is at stake in Woody Allen’s “Magic in the Moonlight.” Although perhaps the existence of an afterlife is actually one of the most important questions we could grapple with, it’s a relief to avoid 50,000 Huffington Post think pieces on a film. If American snipers are too rich for your blood, I recommend snooty British magicians instead.
Like Allen’s delightful period romp “Midnight in Paris,” this film is set in the 1920s, and the formula successfully distances these films from Allen’s core New York films that starred him. Transitioning away from making the same film repeatedly, however good many of them were, was difficult when Allen still cast himself in them. Then, in the early 2000s, a series of Allen stand-ins starred, doing essentially Woody Allen impressions, and those films weren’t so great, like that one with Jason Biggs and Christina Ricci (“Anything Else.”)
Now we are in the lush European period films phase of Allen’s career and it is nothing if not charming. Actually, it might not be anything but charming. Colin Firth plays an intellectual and egomaniacal magician who, in addition his extremely popular “Wie Ling Soo” act, is famous for mercilessly debunking fake psychics. He is summoned to the South of France to do just that to alleged clairvoyant Sophie Baker (Emma Stone) who is holding court and winning the affections of a fabulously wealthy family with a highly eligible son.
Firth brings texture and humor to his incredibly fusty character and Emma Stone is basically charm incarnate, especially in her adorable 1920s frocks. Suspense is not exactly a key element of the story, as Firth struggles to maintain his firmly reasonable view of life and death, but openly wishes that Sophie was not a fake, because life would be better if it were magical.
In the end, Firth and Stone both play magicians whose careers are built on a very willing suspension of disbelief, and “Magic in the Moonlight” requires that too. You won’t be up all night pondering the questions asked by this film; it is not a challenge, but a pleasure, to watch. But maybe, like the family that Sophie Baker may or may not put in contact with their beloved father and husband, I wanted to believe in it. I wanted to like this movie, and the stars were all too happy to oblige me.