"The gullible are so stupid they deserve it," says Stanley Crawford (Colin Firth), the cocky stage magician devoted to debunking spiritualists in Woody Allen's "Magic in the Moonlight." Allen has built a career around cheeky one-liners, but with this one he's practically thumbing his nose at the audience. There's no mistaking "Magic in the Moonlight," which takes place in the jazz age, features plenty of witty repartee and the shadings of an old school Hollywood romance, as the kind of blithe, talky comedy that Allen produces on autopilot. But 48 years since Allen's first feature "What's Up, Tiger Lily," there's a clean distinction between endearing Allen comedies and afterthoughts. "Magic in the Moonlight" unquestionably falls into the latter category.
The director, who turns 80 next year, cranks out a movie per year with an arbitrary track record that often depends on whether the material provides enough substance for his cast to do something interesting with it. "Magic in the Moonlight" belongs to the pool of lesser Allen comedies, yet Firth and Emma Stone — as the alleged necromancer Sophie Baker, the object of Stanley's scrutiny and eventually his affections — bring all the zany energy they can muster. Unfortunately, unlike Cate Blanchett's remarkable capacity to wrestle the material of last year's "Blue Jasmine" into her own furious showcase, the actors are provided with a limited range of options.
That being said, this is no travesty of "Scoop"-level proportions, nor does it show the markings of clumsy storytelling like Allen's most recent misfire, "To Rome With Love." Instead, "Magic in the Moonlight" offers a half-baked scenario and follows through on it with largely unmemorable results. But maybe that's worst: it's simultaneously possible to detect Allen's voice in every scene and recognize the sheer lack of ambition behind it.
Anyone familiar with Robert B. Weide's 2012 "American Masters" documentary on Allen knows that he keeps a small box filled with scraps of paper on which he jots down brief ideas for projects. Sometimes, that's just enough to provide a foundation for his traditional storytelling to gel with the actors eager to inhabit his stylish world. "Magic in the Moonlight," however, registers as more paper scrap than movie. Within the opening minutes, when Stanley's old magician pal Howard (Simon McBurney) beckons Stanley to the south of France so he can scrutinize Sophie's seances, viewers may be able to relate to her supernatural claims by predicting plot's future direction: Naturally, the skeptically-minded Stanley is entranced by Sophie's abilities — in addition to her physical appearance, of course.
But forget about the 28-year age difference between the pair. This is a Woody Allen movie! Their romantic attraction marks one element this feature gets right, once again because Allen apparently cedes control to his cast. Firth and Stone generate terrific onscreen chemistry, as the older actor's leery expression clashes nicely with Stone's wide-eyed reactions whenever she claims to have received a premonition. It's obvious that not every motive comes from a sincere place, but given those expectations, Firth and Stone are pleasant enough to watch.
If only Allen gave them more to wade through. It's no major huge spoiler to reveal that after hearing Sophie make psychic pronouncements about his past, he grows abruptly convinced of her powers — so much so that he even calls for a press conference to denounce his atheistic point of view. Would someone dedicated to the pursuit of scientific evidence give up so easily? Or did Allen, sitting at his typewriter, shrug and decide to just speed things up for the final act?
Such questions would be moot if "Magic in the Moonlight" didn't place them front and center. Unlike "Curse of the Jade Scorpion" or "Midnight in Paris," Allen's latest playful treatment of supernatural events deals more with its characters' philosophical relationship to otherworldly phenomena rather than their ramifications for the plot. Yet it offers only one truly satisfying investigation into crises of faith: a single shot in which Firth's character, faced with sudden catastrophe, unleashes a makeshift prayer before changing his tune. Watching him come to his senses is akin to witnessing the movie itself smarten up.
That single late-in-the-game scene nearly saves the movie. Even as it arrives at a rather basic climax, "Magic in the Moonlight" conveys the shadings of a nimble romcom with keen existential undertones. Per usual at this juncture, cinematographer Darius Khonji gives the period a bright, detailed palette that matches the sparkly quality of Allen's sensibilities. But as a whole, his screenplay feels oddly toothless, as if the filmmaker hopes to relish in the humor of his scenario but failed to come up with enough punchlines to carry it out.
Whenever Allen makes a bad or even just a mediocre movie, it begs the question of whether he's lost his comedic touch. Certainly his movies lack the smarmy, vulgar polish of earlier efforts, and there are plenty other directors well-positioned to take the mantle of refined comedic filmmaking he's dominated for so long.
With the success of "The Grand Budapest Hotel," Wes Anderson has firmly entered Woody Allen territory by making delightfully eccentric comedies with blend goofy antics with serious undertones. Michel Gondry, whose stylish "Mood Indigo" opens this week, also brings a degree of visual invention to comedy that hasn't manifested to a satisfying degree in Allen's movies for ages.
Still, Allen's been playing his game for a long time, and his track record can't be discounted, especially since it directly informs the work. There are just enough cheery quips and verbal asides to allow "Magic in the Moonlight" to accrue the precise appeal of its creator.
But there's also just enough to make its shortcomings clear: The pratfall of Allen's ridiculous output is that every misstep suffers from comparison to better versions from the same director. He's become so prolific that even his true believers must experience the occasional crisis of faith, but with production already underway for his next feature, it won't take long before he gets another chance to win us back again.
"Magic in the Moonlight" opens in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago on July 25 followed by a nationwide expansion.