With “Magic in the Moonlight,” Woody Allen has made a good Woody Allen movie, in all that the phrase implies. That is, it’s good on its own, but it’s also good when compared against Allen’s body of work. It’s very much in the pattern of this filmmaker: From the white-on-black opening credits, to the 1920s music on the soundtrack, to the nostalgic-sounding title, Allen is keeping the 20th century safe in the 21st.
For those keeping score, this is the 10th film released during Allen’s 70s – he turns 79 in December – with one more film to go. And already we can say that Allen’s 70s have turned out to be one of his most productive decades. Out of 10, he has made only three bombs (“You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger,” “Whatever Works” and “To Rome With Love”), and none of those was nearly as repellent as the worst films of the previous decade (“Anything Else,” “Celebrity”).
If you want to be mean, you can toss the OK but unremarkable “Cassandra’s Dream” in with the bad entries, but that still leaves a 60 percent success rate, ranging from the great or near-great “Match Point,” “Midnight in Paris” and “Blue Jasmine” to the delightful “Vicky Cristina Barcelona,” to the unambitious but perfectly pleasing “Scoop.” “Magic in the Moonlight” is about at “Scoop” level.
It deals with magic, faith and love as a fleeting respite from the yawning abyss of death and nonexistence. Set in the late 1920s, the movie stars Colin Firth as a world-renowned magician, performing in Berlin, who is offered a tantalizing proposition – to go to the south of France and debunk a young American clairvoyant. In recent years, Woody Allen seems to be setting his movies in whatever place he wants to go on vacation.
In “Magic,” we get a different sort of Colin Firth – starched and stern, as usual, but loquacious and clueless, and a self-proclaimed genius. In a way, he’s a lot like Henry Higgins, and the movie is not unlike “Pygmalion” (or “My Fair Lady”), except that there is no teacher-student element to the plot. But the characters and the structure pretty much line up with the Shaw play, just as “Blue Jasmine” had parallels with “A Streetcar Named Desire.”
Most of the movie takes place on the summer estate of a wealthy family, where Sophie (Emma Stone) is conducting seances and dazzling everyone with her uncanny ability to read people’s vibrations. Stone plays it right down the middle, so that, unless you’re paying strict attention, it will be hard for the viewer to tell whether Sophie is real or a fraud. But she’s certainly funny. The comic pairing of Stone and Firth might be difficult to imagine, but their differences in size and age, combined with their similarly sly attentiveness, make them an excellent match.
For an agnostic, Woody Allen has always been big on the spiritual comforts of faith, a recurring theme for him that goes back at least as far as “Love and Death” (1975). The possibility that Sophie just might have a true gift opens up the possibility that a great beyond actually exists, a possibility that affects the various characters in different ways.
Allen’s decision to set the film in the 1920s is something like his decision to film in the south of France: No reason, he just likes it there. He’s not the only one. Lovers of F. Scott Fitzgerald will immediately light on the sight of a nighttime party, featuring hundreds of revelers dancing to jazz with a mansion in the foreground, with a sense of emotional homecoming. The becoming styles and the totems of prewar luxury, not to mention the gorgeous natural surroundings, make “Magic in the Moonlight” easy on the eyes, though the movie seems militant in its lack of close-ups. It’s long takes and medium shots for most of the way.
Perhaps the movie’s use of the past is more than cosmetic in this one regard: Watching Allen revisit his old themes and obsessions already feels like a nostalgic experience. Actually setting the movie back in time deflects this and makes a virtue of a shortcoming.