Any honest consideration of Woody Allen’s career would conclude that he makes about one good film for every five ideas he tries. (By my count, there have been 15 good to great out of the nearly 50 he’s finished.) Most of the first half of this film is about as bad as Woody Allen ever gets when he strikes out. Not only is it humor-free, but the performances feel like performances — not only do we know we’re watching a film, but we can imagine the other side of the rolling camera, a room full of technicians and Allen nervously biting his nails. There is little going on technically or in the usual hot jazz score that gives us a thrill. Of all the fine actors employed, only Emma Stone seems engaged by the script — the rest are either flailing or camping it up. And that goes triple for Colin Firth, who seems surprisingly uncomfortable with his lines.
But in the second half, something a bit magical happens, I admit. The plot, which concerns a young American medium (Stone) among a host of wealthy English folks in France, finally does takes a nice twist, and the whole proceeding seems suddenly to have been written by someone who knows how to pen a script. Eventually Allen makes this programmatic material wobbly but mobile. It’s the old debate on logic versus superstition, framed as a period-piece comedy where people of various social levels confront one another in a wilderness of ideas. The rules of the universe suddenly come unstuck and go dewy-eyed.
Suffice it to say, Magic in the Moonlight gets good when it gets real. When everything is straightened out in the end, the whole thing feels ingenious for a few ticks. Then it goes bad again at the finale. Framed in a kiss that feels wrong, off by one whole generation, Allen’s frothy take ends by going sour.
But the real problem with this romp is the inexcusable one. It really isn’t funny.