Nobody is as skilled at casting actors as Woody Allen. And not just his “muses” from over the years, from Diane Keaton to Scarlett Johansson.
Allen knows how to cast his actors from the top of the callsheet to the bottom, and “Magic in the Moonlight” does not deviate from his impeccable standard.
Knowing that is what makes “Magic” such a disappointment, though the movie-going experience is (mostly) a pleasant one.
In the 1920s-set romantic comedy, Colin Firth stars as Stanley, a crotchety magician whose Asian stage persona is Wei Ling Soo. In the opening scene, he dons a Fu Manchu mustache, a bald cap and overdrawn eyebrows.
The result is not just astonishingly tone-deaf – which it is, considering it’s 2014 – but it also begs the question as to whether Allen wanted audiences to like Firth’s character.
Nevertheless, it appears that the answer is yes, since the rest of the film is little more than a quaintly conventional rom-com that is only set apart by the supernatural bent.
At the behest of one of his magician friends, Stanley – the “greatest debunker of fake spiritualists in the world” – attempts to unmask a beautiful medium named Sophie (Emma Stone).
Sophie has been entertaining a wealthy family, including a widow (Jacki Weaver) and her son (Hamish Linklater), a ukulele-playing manchild who is quite smitten with her.
Stanley sets about trying to expose the lovely young woman as a charlatan, before having an epiphany that miracles might just happen.
In fact, the real miracle is that Sophie appears to melt the old coot’s cold, rational heart, with the prototypical rom-com hijinks (car trouble during an ill-timed rainstorm) hinting that fate may have a hand in putting these two together, although Stanley would never believe such things (before Sophie, anyway).
Without spoiling the story, Stanley’s final takeaway raises the ick factor to new levels, as the primary argument from Allen seems to be that a little self-delusion is paramount in finding lasting happiness.
That’s troubling, because the embattled filmmaker’s way of exploring his own neuroses through the heroes in his films inevitably clouds “Magic” with a darker edge than was clearly intended with this bit of cinematic cotton candy.
While Woody Allen is famous for making movies that make people think, “Magic in the Moonlight” is best enjoyed by trying not to think too much.
And that, if you think about it, is essentially Allen’s advice for getting by in the world.