Magic in the Moonlight feels like a 1920s remnant

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Directed by Woody Allen. Starring Colin Firth and Emma Stone. Rated G.

Magic in the Moonlight not only captures the zeitgeist of the 1920s, it feels like a lightly colorized remnant of that faraway time, just before the bubble burst. It’s also a riff on the class-conscious comedies of the early ’30s, when Hollywood was most nostalgic for those Great Gatsby times.

Woody Allen’s latest pleasantry—a harmlessly minor entry in his oeuvre—finds the director still in European mode, first in Weimar Berlin and then sun-dappled Provence and the Côte d’Azur. (Not a word of French is spoken.) Colin Firth plays top magician Stanley Crawford, who makes a living as a “Chinese” prestidigitator, although his real passion is for exposing fake mediums and their rich-soaking séances. Stanley fancies himself the ultimate rationalist, so when a long-time pal and rival (Simon McBurney) tells him of a sprightly young American who appears to be fleecing wealthy friends in the south of France, the erstwhile Wei Ling Soo is only too happy to do some free-time debunking.

Emma Stone is Sophie, the hardscrabble American in question; her access to the dead and their secrets has put her in good stead with a wealthy widow (Jacki Weaver) and her gormless, ukulele-strumming son (Hamish Linklater), who worships her senselessly. Stanley takes the challenge as a test of science versus spirituality, which he calls “a seductive morass of sugarcoated claptrap”. But two guesses as to how that turns out.

Cinematographer Darius Khondji, who shot Midnight in Paris and The Immigrant, here sticks to a palette of pale pastels, whether in lush gardens or rocky seascapes. And there’s the period-perfect music you’d expect. Allen has come up with plenty of Anglocentric zingers for Firth, whose misanthropic Stanley talks about the ideal relationship as “the acme of congruity”, not passion.

But very little attention has been paid to Stone’s character, who doesn’t seem to have anywhere to go except where the plot takes her. She’s bubbly but dim, and he’s a rude-spoken cad twice her age. Why are we supposed to root for them? And where’s the magic everyone keeps talking about?

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