After dealing with the emotional breakdown at the core of Blue Jasmine, a very contemporary tale of free-falling down the social ladder that won star Cate Blanchett the Best Actress Oscar, director/writer Woody Allen once again seeks refuge in the past. With Magic in the Moonlight, Allen turns out a well-wrought and clever but lightweight bauble set in late-1920s France that echoes the European daydream of his 2011 hit, Midnight in Paris.
What makes Moonlight most memorable is the performance from Colin Firth, who is in nearly every scene. Without him, Moonlight just might evaporate.
Firth is Stanley, the Penn Jillette of his day, a magician and a man of science and secularism whose specialty is to debunk those claiming to engage in the supernatural. An old magician friend of his, Howard (Simon McBurney), shows up after a performance to tell him of Sophie Baker (Emma Stone), a young American woman residing in the south of France who claims to have psychic powers and the ability to channel the dead.
Howard says he tried to prove she was really just a trickster but left her seance perplexed. She seemed to be the real deal.
Eager to discredit her, Stanley agrees to attend her next seance, where he will also meet her mother (Marcia Gay Harden) and fiance, Brice (Hamish Linklater), both of whom are convinced of her powers.
But things get complicated when Stanley, who is also engaged, finds himself attracted to Sophie and vice versa. He had never anticipated that he might have to choose love over logic.
Firth is a marvel, walking a fine line between engagingly smart and annoyingly supercilious. When they’re debating reason vs. religion, Stone can’t keep up with him.
Ultimately, though, unlike the illusions with which Stanley opens the film, there’s less in this movie than meets the eye.
Exclusive: Landmark Magnolia, Dallas; Angelika Plano; opens Aug. 15 at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth
MAGIC IN THE MOONLIGHT
* * *
Director: Woody Allen
Cast: Colin Firth, Emma Stone
Rated: PG-13 (brief suggestive comment, smoking throughout)
Running time: 97 min.