Colin Firth, Emma Stone, Marcia Gay Harden, Jackie Weaver, Simon McBurney
Woody Allen continues to pay homage to the Hollywood films he loves with this trifle of a romantic comedy. He blends a Jazz Age story with European locations, 1930s Rom Com style, and his modern Allen-esque editing. It doesn’t always make for a thrilling ride; in fact, it can seem quite mechanical.
The problem is that – without the black and white cinematography and old Hollywood sense of pace and grand style – this short film actually feels longish and completely uninspiring. As a 1930s film, it wouldn’t even be a classic – perhaps more admired for its style over substance, a way to fill the 2 A.M. slot on Turner Classic Movies.
It’s 1928 in jazz-addicted Europe. Firth is a magician who pretends to be a stereotypical Chinese wizard. He’s a very good prestidigitator, and he has a side business debunking mediums and soothsayers. When his childhood friend – another magician (McBurney) – says he’s been fooled at a séance, crisply cynical Firth steps in to ferret out a fraud.
The charlatan is a simple American (Stone) led around by her stage mom (Gay Harden). This pair has duped a rich American ex pat living in France, and the old lady (Weaver) is willing to give money to the pretty young medium. Her son even wants to marry Stone.
Of course, since we’ve been raised on the screwy Hollywood romances, we know how this is going to play out. Magic will be just cynical enough, but not so sour that fanciful people will find anything offensive. There’s a bit of My Fair Lady love blooming, just as we’d expect.
Allen has a great sense of the era’s style and music, and he often fills the European spots with glamor and fashion. However, even his filming cannot cover up all the tricks he’s trying to pull. The movie is modern in warn color with Allen’s quick, jarring editing all over. The camera often has to sit, hemmed in, not panning out of frame for fear of showing something of the present day. Mirrors and other shiny surfaces are made distractingly matte to control light bounce.
Stone is up to playing an innocent, but she isn’t quite ready for the broad 1930s camp that Firth and Weaver bring to the role. (This overstated delivery of character would’ve worked if Allen had styled the entire film to fit it – making it black and white, foregoing close-ups for opulent group shots, and speeding up the pace with more witty dialogue.) Gay Harden is woefully underutilized.
The saddest trick of this frivolous flick is that nothing is surprising. Because of its simplicity, the middle feels twice as long and insincere as it’s supposed to feel. It’s easy to imagine how one or two more complications would’ve made this romance more fun and lively.
Firth admits his magic is mostly mechanical; so is this plot.
That’s not to say that Magic in the Moonlight (I hate this title) can’t be a distraction for a couple hours. The European chateaus, the jazz music, and the fashion all could be worthy time wasters, if not the frothy story the its center. However, don’t buy it outright! Wait a couple years when it’s on television, filling late-night airtime, where you can get a little Magic for free.