Stone's psychic gifts seem like the real deal.
Woody Allen. These are two of the most contentious words in contemporary movie-fan circles. From the scandals and accusations in his personal life to his homogenous character demographics, there is no neutral ground in conversations about the writer and director.
With Magic in the Moonlight, Allen once again gives us a period-piece milieu, in this case 1928. Once again he takes us to a European location, the south of France. And once again he's made his protagonist a misanthropic entertainer, an Englishman named Stanley (Colin Firth) who performs as a touring Chinese illusionist called Wei Ling Soo. Stanley also delights in debunking fraudulent mediums and diviners, bent on proving that there's nothing beyond this world that isn't trickery or wishful thinking. So when an old friend (Simon McBurney) informs him that a young American named Sophie (Emma Stone) is enjoying the patronage of a wealthy family while claiming to make contact with the dead husband of the matriarch (Jacki Weaver), Stanley is eager to expose her.
It's hard not to drag Allen's personal life into his work, especially when Magic centers on an older entertainer intent on showing that a young woman is lying. But on a more rudimentary level, this movie just doesn't sparkle. Allen generally makes two types of films: frothy romps and more serious philosophical meditations. He's produced great examples of each in the last 40 or so years. But the comedy in Magic is leaden. Allen's witticisms feel recycled, and Firth is the wrong actor to make them work. He's too solid and straightforward to come off as a wiseacre cynic.
More frustrating is the fact that Magic returns to one of Allen's frequently recurring thesis statements: that existence is meaningless and only romantic love can redeem it. This perspective brings to mind Allen's infamous "heart wants what it wants" quote; it also makes him look defensive when he repeats it as often as he does. There's a mildly interesting twist when Stanley becomes increasingly convinced that Sophie's psychic gifts are the real deal. His beliefs are so shaken that he prays when his beloved aunt (Eileen Atkins) is injured in a car accident. Yet the film ultimately plays as a repudiation of comforting spirituality.
Allen is too competent a writer and filmmaker to make complete garbage, and too much of a legend for talented actors like Stone to resist working with him. She's fairly appealing in the standard-issue ingénue role she's been given, but he hasn't evolved much over the years. That's just not good enough if he ever wants to change the conversation.