Review

Review: 'Magic in the Moonlight' Is a Tired, Sometimes Funny Throwback to Pre-Woody Allen Hollywood

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Jul 22, 2014 | 1:54pm EDT

Magic in the MoonlightSony Pictures via Everett Collection

When Hollywood movies were very much "a certain thing," Woody Allen's weren't. An innovator from the get-go, Allen celebrated the possibilities of cinema by contorting and creating, giving us in everything from What's Up, Tiger Lily? straight through his '80s string a filmic style that America hadn't yet seen. Now that he's done his due diligence, Allen seems content to make the sort of pictures that snagged his heart in the first place: the romantic comedies of the '40s and '50s — appropriately, Magic in the Moonlight borrows the Jazz Age setting of classics like Some Like It Hot — that operated in a certain straightforward, delightful fashion. Allen's latest follows the swath of Billy Wilder, Blake Edwards, and Howard Hawks, but aims for the Woody brand with muted doses of his signature nihilism and cantankerous banter. But seven decades after this cinematic golden age and four past Allen's heyday, Magic in the Moonlight's charms wear thin and familiar rather quickly. 

Magic in the Moonlight doesn't carry too many surprises; kind of a shame for a flick about magicians and mediums. But it's not the premise that is in principal need of reconstruction, it's the Allen chatter. The movie opens immersed in the fun inherent in the rantings of a misanthropic blowhard illusionist (Colin Firth, whose comic delivery in the early scenes of this movie is markedly impressive) who knows the margins of reality and can barely stomach the thought of some charming charlatan passing as a psychic (Emma Stone) pulling the wool over the eyes of a gaggle of unsuspecting millionaires... whom he also detests for their stupidity, but it's the thrill of the "A-ha!" that drives him to prove the clairvoyant a fake.

Magic in the MoonlightSony Pictures via Everett Collection

Firth's comical butting of heads — both with the enamored aristocrats (Hamish Linklater plays the hysterically doe-eyed son who is smitten with Stone's Sophie; Jacki Weaver is a giddy matriarch longing to connect with her dead husband) and with the alleged swindler — ensues, opening up an unmistakably Allenian world of privilege-induced idiocy and shirt-stuffing. But what kicks off as great comedy grows tired by the fifth or sixth time we have to hear the curmudgeonly Stanley (Firth) pronounce his skepticism or watch the entrancing Sophie declare her devotion to possibility. After a while, what started out as a classic-era throwback reveals itself to be something with very little to show off, new or otherwise.

Still, even in its most redundant hours, Magic in the Moonlight never dips to levels of unpleasant. Firth and Stone are always a joy to watch, especially when playing rounds of combat. Allen's diatribes about mortality and meaning tire, but never fall dead asleep. And there is something consistently funny about Linklater playing a dead-from-the-neck-up Pittsburgh WASP serenading Emma Stone with a ukulele.

Ultimately, Magic in the Moonlight won't be a memorable trip back to the age of Wilder or Hawks, or a reminder of why you started watching Woody Allen movies in the first place. Instead, it's just a pleasant enough romp with a few hearty laughs and ample opportunities to let your mind wander back to your favorite scene in Sleeper. Ha, yeah, Sleeper. That was a good movie.

3/5

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