With his 44th feature, Woody Allen returns with a characteristically formidable crew and top-drawer cast to a France of the imagination, previously the setting of his highest-grossing film to date, 2011’s Midnight in Paris. If last year’s Blue Jasmine was rooted in the frauds and self-delusions of a fallen, Madoff-afflicted world, Magic in the Moonlight harks back to another era and tradition of deceptions practiced by clairvoyants and stage entertainers.
Sometime in the sumptuously costumed Twenties, Colin Firth enjoys himself as a haughty Orientalist magician who’s summoned by a friend to expose a gold-digging psychic, Sophie (Emma Stone). With a setup out of Murder, She Wrote and a title evoking a charity ball, the story settles in at an estate in the south of France where Sophie, overseen by her mother (Marcia Gay Harden), holds a rich gullible matriarch (Jacki Weaver) in her thrall. Diverting but inconsequential, the toothless takes-one-to-know-one story coasts on Firth’s practiced wryness and Stone’s insouciant charm that acquires a glint of antagonism once her livelihood is threatened.
But talk about off-screen space… I did not by any means enter this lighthearted romp looking for any such resonance, nor need it signify anything, but over the course of watching the story unfold, it did occur to me that the film’s suspense derives primarily from the spectacle of an older entertainer trying to prove that a young woman is lying.