Magic in the Moonlight is an affable, distracting, but ultimately unsatisfactory effort from Woody Allen. The whole thing looks great, the actors do a good job with what they are given, but the central premise is spread far too thinly to carry a feature length film, and the dialogue is clunky and awkward.
Colin Firth plays Stanley, a world famous illusionist, better known as Wei Ling Soo, who is roped in by an old friend and fellow magician to unmask a psychic, Sophie (Emma Stone) who is preying on a wealthy friend of his. At first, Stanley thinks this will be a simple task, but as he gets more involved, he finds himself starting to doubt his materialistic worldview. Could Sophie really have the power to talk to the dead? In addition, could Stanley be falling in love with her?
The problem, as is so often the case with modern Woody Allen films, is the script, which feels rushed and poorly thought out, and fails on several levels. Firstly, the central idea, essentially "is it a bad thing to believe in an illusion if it makes you happy?" is interesting and thought provoking, but thinly stretched over a feature length film. Allen has done multiple storyline films before, such as Hannah and Her Sisters or Crimes and Misdemeanours, and maybe that approach would have worked better here. To his credit, despite Allen’s well known atheist leanings, he does not lecture or polemicize in the script.
Secondly, none of the characters feel as though they are real people, and are only the doing the things they do because the script says so, not because that is what the character would do. Stanley’s conversion from devout atheist to true believer in the afterlife is not in the slightest bit convincing, (especially given his “thorough” testing of Sophie seems to consist of one séance and her telling him things about his beloved aunt), and neither is the idea of a love affair between Stanley and Sophie.
Thirdly, is the dialogue, which is grating, clunky and artificial sounding, something that perhaps reads better on a page than coming out of somebody's mouth.
Finally, and I have no idea if this is done for budgetary or artistic reasons, but there is far too much “tell don’t show”, with interminable scenes of characters explaining what has happened off screen, or how they feel, giving some of the film a turgid lifeless feel. Noticeably absent is any version of "The Woody Allen character", a staple of his films, whether played by Allen or an impersonator such as John Cusack in Bullets over Broadway. This character can usually be relied upon to inject some life into any situation, with his neuroses and collection of good one liners (another element missing from this film - it simply is not funny)
However, if the script is lacking in depth, detail and poetry, then the production design certainly is not. The costumes, cars and country estates all look wonderful, but beyond that, help to make the Great Gatsby meets Wodehouse world completely believable. The music, another staple of Allen films is well chosen, a mix of well-known and more obscure big band songs from the era.
Sadly, though, these elements on their own cannot save the film, and Magic in the Moonlight goes on the "pleasant but forgettable" pile of Woody Allen films. A shame, as he has shown with Blue Jasmine and Midnight in Paris that when he spends a bit of time crafting the script he can still make interesting, thought provoking and funny work. The Allen juggernaut roles ever onwards with shooting underway on his latest film, so, who knows - maybe next time?