The first sign “Magic in the Moonlight” will be one of those Woody Allen duds – the ones that always seem to follow successes such as last year’s “Blue Jasmine” – is how often the topic of napping arises.
Taking naps is mentioned more than once and even happens on camera in “Moonlight.” Colin Firth’s 1920s magician character, Stanley, abruptly decides to catch some shut-eye during a scene with Emma Stone’s spiritual-medium character, Sophie. He does not want to nap with Sophie (wink, wink) but alone. The nap is strange on all fronts, not the least of which is its presence in a motion picture.
Stanley’s snooze says everything about the level of energy Allen put into “Moonlight,” a pretty but slight French Riviera-set romantic comedy with a game leading man and a miscast leading lady. Were there enough interesting story elements to detract from Firth’s and Stone’s resulting lack of chemistry, “Magic” still might be worthwhile. But Allen appears to have decided his job was done after securing a couple of movie stars and some gorgeous locations.
Stanley, who performs in costume as the supposedly Chinese magician Wei Ling Soo (there were less-racist forms of 1920s stage entertainment, but Allen doesn’t show them), also makes it his business to debunk spiritualists. He does not believe wonders exist beyond those he can achieve with his own popular brand of sleight of hand.
Stanley’s friend, Howard (a spirited Simon McBurney), enlists Stanley to test the powers of Sophie, who is staying at an estate belonging to Howard’s wealthy friends, the Catledges. Sophie and her manager mother (Marcia Gay Harden, wasted in a small role) have convinced the widow Catledge (Jacki Weaver, wasted in a small-ish role) that Sophie can commune with her late husband.
When Stanley arrives with Howard at the estate, he does not reveal that he is the man behind the famous Wei Ling Soo. Yet Sophie, upon meeting him, immediately sees “the Orient” in his aura. The audience, by contrast, sees insufficient screen-testing for chemistry.
Firth is 53, and Stone is 25, but that is not why their pairing feels wrong.
Firth has grown more handsome in his 50s and in theory passes the Cary Grant-George Clooney test. That’s a test to determine the tip-top of the age range of men that women in their 20s would be attracted to. As in, “I usually don’t like guys that old, but I would make an exception for ”
Other actors in Allen’s older-man/younger-woman movies have not passed this test. For instance, Larry David, in 2009’s “Whatever Works.” Or Allen, in anything.
Firth also fully invests himself in his role. He contrasts the curmudgeonly Stanley’s seeming contempt for charlatan mystics – he disputes Sophie’s readings, even when she is on point – and much of the rest of humankind, at film’s start, with an eventual dawning of hope. That hope is attached to the possibility of a romance with Sophie and also that a spirit world exists, after Sophie’s readings prove uncanny.
But Firth’s worthiness as a romantic lead opposite Stone remains theoretical, because she’s all wrong for this movie. Her mien is too modern, and she looks undernourished in unstructured 1920s dresses. She also seems unusually subdued, her performance rarely revealing her signature vitality. Efforts to pit Stanley’s superior British air against Sophie’s American sass fail to produce sparks, because Stone is so sass-less.
The Firth-Stone mismatch sometimes dulls the visual romance of “Moonlight.” But even it cannot diminish fully the vivid golds and blues of the French Riviera as captured by cinematographer Darius Khonji.
The 1920s fashions and roadsters also captivate, and a glittering party scene makes one wonder what an Allen-directed “The Great Gatsby” would be like. But Mia Farrow probably got “Gatsby” in the split.
Sophie’s displays of psychic ability eventually dazzle so fully that Stanley no longer can deny her. He begins to view her not just as a wonder herself but a window to what he always secretly desired: proof of a bigger force out there.
One could speculate that “Moonlight” reflects its 78-year-old maker’s curiosity about what might exist beyond the physical realm. But the movie is too lightweight for deep thoughts.
“Moonlight” lacks subplots to distract from the flimsy Sophie-Stanley pairing. Even at 98 minutes, the movie drags. That’s why the nap thing is so noticeable, first as an oddity, then an attractive option.