We are at a crowded theater in Berlin circa 1928. A rapt German audience fixes on a magician who shares the stage with … an elephant.
The magician, outfitted in robes and sporting a prominent Fu Manchu mustache, has a large partition placed between the audience and the pachyderm. Voilà! The partition is taken away to reveal that the elephant has vanished. It isn’t the only sleight of hand being played out. Minutes later, we learn that the magician is not from the Far East but is a starchy Englishman portrayed by Colin Firth.
The scene promises mystery and magic to come. But even with the literal elephant off stage, a figurative elephant is still in the room: the ever-frustrating work of Woody Allen. Opening Friday at AMC Quail Springs Mall 24, 2501 W. Memorial Road, Magic in the Moonlight is two-thirds enchantment and one-third letdown, beset by the problems that have plagued many Allen films over the past several decades. Firth (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) plays magician Stanley Crawford, stage name Wei Ling Soo, whom his best friend fittingly describes as “a genius with all the charm of a typhus epidemic.” That plainspoken friend, Howard (Simon McBurney), lures Stanley to a country estate in the south of France with an irresistible challenge. It seems an American psychic named Sophie Baker (Emma Stone, The Amazing Spider- Man 2) is wowing — and presumably conning — a wealthy family. Can Stanley, who scoffs at the notion of mystical worlds, expose her as a fraud?
Sophie, however, is no slouch. Stanley is knocked off his game by how much this charming young woman appears to know about him. It isn’t long before the cynical, atheistic Stanley is rethinking his entire worldview. Does Sophie’s mysticism point to the existence of God? And is Stanley falling in love?
Allen is clearly in his element here. Buoyed by gorgeous countryside vistas, Magic in the Moonlight mines the comedy to be had from pitting fantasy against reality and religion against science. It skewers the intelligentsia while celebrating them, and it revels in the romance of the Jazz Age. Woody Allen fans can play connect-the-motifs from his earlier films. When a late afternoon rainstorm forces Stanley and Sophie to scurry for shelter in a nearby observatory, the scene recalls Manhattan’s Allen and Diane Keaton falling in love in a planetarium.
In Magic, Allen has two game players. Few actors do flinty arrogance as well as Colin Firth. His Stanley Crawford, an unapologetic misanthrope, is an edgier version of My Fair Lady’s Henry Higgins. By contrast, Emma Stone radiates warmth and wide-eyed wonder. It’s easy to see why Stanley is smitten.
Then something happens. With the third act, Stanley and Sophie stop being characters and start being mouthpieces. With each successive movie, Allen is seemingly less inclined to create convincing people. Their actions and reactions feel absurd or inexplicable, increasingly manipulated by the not-so-invisible hand of a filmmaker lost in his own fantasia.