For half a century, Woody Allen has proselytized the lovability of misanthropes. But the too-prolific filmmaker evidently enjoys hearing himself talk much more than he does coming up with new stories or ideas, which is why the daftly repellent romantic comedy “Magic in the Moonlight” is another insulting exercise in convincing audiences that we should embrace those who love to hate us.
As might be expected from a Woody Allen film, our misanthrope protagonist is a middle-aged curmudgeon whose dexterous wordplay disguises, at least for a little while, how tiresome he really is. (One unfortunate target of his rage is attributed the “charm of a typhoid epidemic.”)
Colin Firth lends his considerable crumpet-up-the-bum charisma to his character Stanley, a flourishing magician of the interwar years who performs on stage as the “Oriental” illusionist Wei Ling Soo. Since Stanley tricks his audience twice at each show, first with his sleights of hand and then with his yellowface, he has made debunking others who claim to have special powers, particularly psychics and mediums, his lifelong aim.
Stanley is soon recruited by an old friend (Simon McBurney) to prove the fraudulence of American clairvoyant Sophie (Emma Stone), who has ensconced herself in the hearts and house of a wealthy European clan in the South of France.
Against postcard-perfect backdrops (the film’s greatest seducer is the French countryside), Stanley discovers that Sophie just might be the real thing, even if the gestures she makes when she receives a “mental vibration” are hokier than Miss Cleo’s accent. She guesses Stanley’s Chinese alter-ego, a professional secret, almost immediately, and soon after rattles off specific details about his fiancée, his deceased uncle, and his childhood home.
As the unambitious, uneducated innocent from Kalamazoo, Sophie is nonthreatening femininity personified, the seeming opposite of her mother (Marcia Gay Harden), who makes sure that she and her daughter are able to keep themselves fed and sheltered, not to mention dressed in the finest Paris clothiers have to offer that season.
Sophie’s abilities so revolutionize Stanley’s worldview that his newfound hopefulness turns into love. For reasons utterly unknown, Sophie was smitten first, despite pledges of eternal love from a young millionaire Brice (Hamish Linklater), forever dressed in tennis whites.
Stone is loose and funny and irresistible as ever, so it’s frustrating to watch her character become increasingly besotted with an older man who could learn a thing or two about manners from Henry Higgins. Stanley shares some similarities to one of the characters most identified with Firth, the principled-to-the-point-of-obnoxious Mr. Darcy of the first half of “Pride and Prejudice,” but the moment when the insufferably pretentious and judgmental duckling turns into a gracious, affectionate swan never arrives.
Even when he falls in love, Stanley can’t help openly mocking her for being unable to attribute literary quotes to their authors. The romance’s arc is such a middle-aged crank’s manic-pixie-dream-girl fantasy, complete with older man learning to enjoy life again through his younger paramour while still retaining his unfailing sense of superiority to her, that it wouldn’t have been surprising if the third-act twist turned out to be that he was a vampire feeding off her youth and vitality.
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To make the romance all the more unappealing (and unlikely), the generation-wide age gap between Firth and Stone is never mentioned, even though the latter is frequently dressed in flowered hats and cotton-candy-pink frocks to make her look even younger than her 25 years.
As it turns out, there is a third-act twist, a rather thinly motivated one that promisingly upends Stanley and Sophie’s relationship while making their romance no more palatable. If Allen once rejuvenated, even reinvented, the romantic comedy, he now only contributes to its demise with the kind of “sugar-coated claptrap” his protagonist so intensely despises.