Going back to his days as a stand-up comic and through all his screenplays and New Yorker pieces, Woody Allen has toyed around with deeply felt existential angst, all this, of course, leavened with goofy gags and verbal slapstick.
One of his early film comedies, “Love and Death,” summarizes these twin obsessions: Amid a knockabout comedy involving Napoleon’s invasion of Russia come philosophical conversations with Nietzsche-like observations on the realities of the world we live in and questions pertaining to religious doctrines and traditional morality.
Allen doesn’t always pull this off, of course. These impulses make strange bedfellow. Yet therein lies their attraction to a non-religious comic suffering from a melancholia verging on anhedonia (the original title of “Annie Hall” by the way).
“Magic in the Moonlight” is the latest such search for the meaning of life while cracking jokes and presenting the world in strikingly poetic images. Alas, this one represents one of his lesser forays into metaphysics and Groucho Marxian irreverence.
With a title and period French setting that attempts to recapture the many moviegoers who made his 2011 “Midnight in Paris” into his biggest hit ever, the writer-director sets up a comic cat-and-mouse game between a celebrated magician and misanthrope who’s determined to expose a young female psychic as a fraud.
Colin Firth smoothly plays Stanley Crawford, who tours European theaters disguised as a Chinese conjuror. As a professional deceiver though, he takes great umbrage to spiritualism and metaphysics. An atheist who believes that what you see is what you get in life, he despises all notions of an afterlife.
His arrogance in these matters has, as his old friend and fellow magician Howard (Simon McBurney) says, given him all the “charm of a typhus epidemic.”
Indeed it is Howard who summons Stanley to the Riviera to unmask a young American woman, Sophie Baker (Emma Stone), whose supposed clairvoyant powers has entranced and possibly exploited the genteel hospitality of the Pittsburgh family of Grace Catledge (Jacki Weaver), anxious to reconnect with her late husband.
As you would expect, Stanley not only is stumped by the attractive woman’s “magic” — he can’t see how she knows so many things about his own life much less how she pulls off the seance — he suffers the double whammy of falling for her. Although in the latter case, he is the last one to realize it.
Other stock characters drift around this duo, none of whom has much weight as these are mere vehicles of exposition or sounding boards for Stanley’s rants.
Among them is Grace’s lovelorn, ukulele-playing son (Hamish Linklater), forever serenading Sophie and no doubt patterned after Rudy Vallee’s similarly smitten playboy in “The Palm Beach Story,” and Sophie’s mom (Marcia Gay Harden), given almost nothing to do.
The great character actress Eileen Atkins does have something to play as Stanley’s aunt in Provence, who has powers of insight of her own when it comes to her errant nephew. Yet she seems to have stepped out of another, possibly more interesting movie.
Allen can’t seem to decide which playwright’s lead he means to follow — Bernard Shaw’s “Pygmalion” or Noël Coward’s “Blithe Spirit.” The world of flappers and flippancy is distinctly Cowardian and jives none too well with either the metaphysics Allen seeks to puncture or the showdown between an egotistical teacher and resistant pupil of Shaw’s bracing design.
The two sides are presented with such stridency as to allow no margin for doubt. Why must a magician see no metaphysical possibilities? Why must an illusionist be so disillusioned? Why must a clairvoyant take herself so seriously? It’s entirely too didactic.
Even more problematic is that Allen pretty much recycles those questions-to-the-universe that have cropped up in a steady stream of movies down through the years. No new questions, Woody? No new insights into the problems of existence?
The pleasures of this movie lie in its two performers. Firth is a delightful Cowardian misanthrope, glorying in the sharp wit of his sarcasm about the sorry beliefs of the deluded masses.
Stone could burn off half the charm she exhibits here and still have enough left to sail through the movie on gossamer wings of grace and vivacity. Sophie’s soulful radiancy makes you want to believe in an afterlife.
Little chemistry exists for the romance Allen insists on burdening these two with, however. Had he studied “Pygmalion” more closely he would have noticed Shaw bestows attraction on his two mismatched characters not in any romantic way but rather as the Shavian “Life Force” that draws men into marriage.
Without this notion, the wide gap in the ages of his two actors make this “romance” a little uncomfortable. So “Magic in the Moonlight” sticks to a Cowardian world.
“Strange how potent cheap music is,” Coward’s hero remarks in “Private Lives.” Therein lies the allure of this particular “Magic.”
The cheap potency of the Riviera captured in Darius Khondji’s alarmingly beautiful images, Anne Seibel’s sumptuous production design, Sonia Grande’s dress-for-cocktails costumes and ‘20s songs coupled with classical pieces makes you hope that any afterlife might include a fortnight in such a magical, mystical realm.
Opens: July 25, 2014 (Sony Pictures Classics)
Production companies: Dippermouth in association with Perdido Prods. & Ske-Dat-De-Dat Prods.
Cast: Eileen Atkins, Colin Firth, Marcia Gay Harden, Hamish Linklater, Simon McBurney, Emma Stone, Jacki Weaver, Erica Leerhsen, Catherine McCormack, Jeremy Shamos
Director/screenwriter: Woody Allen
Producers: Letty Aronson, Stephen Tenenbaum, Edward Walson
Executive producer: Ronald L. Chez
Director of photography: Darius Khondji
Production designer: Anne Seibel
Costume designer: Sonia Grande
Editor: Alisa Lepselter
PG-13 rating, 96 minutes