The new Woody Allen movie has the flaws that have become familiar in the latter part of his career: slack pacing, too much exposition, and a big age discrepancy between leading man and lady.
I must be worn down by all that, because I truly enjoyed “Magic in the Moonlight.” The exposition’s still a problem — Allen’s script must explain the premise a dozen times — but here the languid pacing is just the right rhythm for this sunny dream of a film.
The setting is 1920s France, where a famous magician, Stanley (Colin Firth), takes on a challenge. Along with making elephants disappear on stage, he’s known offstage as a great debunker of frauds and charlatans.
His friend (Simon McBurney) convinces him to observe Sophie (Emma Stone), whose reputation as a spiritualist is fast growing. She claims to be able to commune with the dead, summoning up the dear departed during séances and collecting large donations from believers.
The blustering magician is stumped by how she does it. And in considering whether she might be the real deal, he also falls for her more earthly charms.
The movie’s got characters and situations that might have sprung from a 1930s screwball comedy, but Allen gives it none of the snap of such things. Still, Hamish Linklater (as Sophie’s wealthy suitor) looks exactly right for his dippy F. Scott Fitzgerald type, and Eileen Atkins is splendid as Stanley’s worldly aunt.
The movie comes on very modestly, and it can certainly be enjoyed as a picturesque bit of cotton candy. But it does actually explore a subject that continues to be central to the human condition — nothing less than the existence of the afterlife, and all the implications that come with that.
Allen doesn’t have earth-shattering ideas on this, but at least he kicks around some subjects that need some nudging.
Colin Firth spends most of the movie in curmudgeon mode, but he has one great scene in the late going where he passes through the entire spectrum of belief, doubt, and skepticism within the course of a single shot.
Emma Stone deserves a better part, but she does have to spend most of the movie as a mystery. So she can’t tip her hand too much.
Allen’s weakness for pretty European locations may not be such a weakness after all. His job these days is creating fantasies that lead toward some kind of truth. Results are mixed, but rather welcome nonetheless.
“Magic in the Moonlight” 3 1/2 stars
Woody Allen’s new one has some of the flaws of his recent work (why do the characters have to explain the plot a dozen times?), but it’s a sunny dream of a movie with more going on than just a scenic tour of the south of France. Colin Firth plays a skeptical magician who tries to expose a spiritualist (Emma Stone) in the 1920s; his devotion to skepticism hangs in the balance.
Rating: PG-13, for subject matter
Showing: Guild 45th, Pacific Place.