Magic In The Moonlight, film review: Woody Allen comedy is breezy if flimsy

(12A) Woody Allen, 98 mins Starring: Colin Firth, Emma Stone, Marcia Gay Harden, Simon McBurney, Jacki Weaver

Magic in the Moonlight, which marks Woody Allen's 49th directorial credit (including shorts and TV movies), is a sliver of a film. Its very title hints at its insubstantial nature.

Inevitably, after the triumph of last year's Blue Jasmine, it is already being dismissed by many as lightweight and a disappointment. There is no Cate Blanchett in tragic heroine mode this time round to galvanise Allen's screenplay. With its repetitions, non-sequiturs and leisurely pacing, Magic in the Moonlight feels like the work of a 78-year-old director. If you're prepared to indulge him, though, it is also a film of considerable, playful charm.

The tone of the storytelling is akin to that of the comedies the great French director Eric Rohmer used to make at an even older age than Allen is now. "Sometimes I wonder if, after the destruction of the rest of the world, Rohmer might still be making his fourth six-part series, on love at different times of day, with holograms of yet more slender, lovely girls, torrents of witty dialogue and contrivances of misunderstanding," the film historian David Thomson wrote of Rohmer – and his words could equally well apply to Allen.

We know from Robert Weide's documentary about him that he keeps a stack of sketches and story lines for possible future projects in his bedside drawer. Some of these ideas may be flimsy and derivative but the scores of films (both good and bad) he has directed over the last five decades have earned him the right to throw out a jeu d'esprit such as Magic in the Moonlight.

The setting is the French Riviera in the late 1920s. This is the world of Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald but, unlike in Midnight in Paris, Allen isn't concerned with literary name-dropping. There are plenty of rich Americans drinking highballs but they are not writers or artists.

The basic plot is very simple. The film starts, for no particular reason, in Berlin, where the famous magician Wei Ling Soo is performing. Backstage, when he pulls off his whiskers, wig and skullcap, the magician turns out to be a quintessential Englishman, Stanley Crawford (Colin Firth). He is a "rational man who believes in a rational world". His own experience as a conjuror enables him to sniff out quacks and charlatans from "the séance table to the Vatican and beyond". When Stanley learns from his friend and fellow magician Howard Burkan (Simon McBurney) that a young American girl called Sophie Baker (Emma Stone) is passing herself off as a clairvoyant, he resolves to show her up as a fraud. Sophie and her mother (Marcia Gay Harden) are staying at the Côte d'Azur home of the immensely wealthy Cartledge family, who are in thrall both to her beauty and to her psychic powers. It is here that Stanley heads.

The Riviera as imagined by Allen is a never never land where young women dress like flappers and the men look as if they're on leave from a PG Wodehouse story or a production of Noël Coward's Private Lives. It's a ridiculously far-fetched, but alluring vision. It helps that the film is so gorgeously shot by the cinematographer Darius Khondji. From the gleaming cars to the sunlight that always seems to be reflected in Stone's hair, from the luxuriant gardens (permanently in full bloom) to the richly lit interiors, every set-up is like something out of a sumptuous retro fashion shoot.

Magic in the Moonlight is a self-reflexive affair playing on both Allen's nostalgia for the Jazz Age and on our nostalgia for Allen's past hits. Allen fans can play their own version of Where's Wally? by trying to spot the ideas that the director has filched from his own back catalogue. Two would-be lovers caught in a rainstorm and running into a conveniently placed observatory? That echoes the scene in Manhattan in which Allen and Diane Keaton escape the thunder by taking refuge in a planetarium. The magician causing assistants to disappear? That's in Allen's "Oedipus Wrecks" section of New York Stories.

As in A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy (itself inspired by Ingmar Bergman's Smiles of a Summer Night), there is plenty of pastoral scenery. Allen isn't just borrowing from his own work. There's a touch of Cary Grant and Grace Kelly in Hitchcock's To Catch a Thief in his portrayal of the spiky relationship between Stone and Firth.

 Allen does offer some new variations on the old themes. Instead of the usual Jewish mother figure, he gives us a dotty English aunt (Eileen Atkins looking like Virginia Woolf) as the repository of all wisdom. Unlike Kenneth Branagh in Celebrity, Firth doesn't try to channel Allen's own performance style. His Stanley is surely one of the least neurotic leading men in an Allen movie. He is priggish, pompous and utterly sarcastic. One of his most endearing qualities is his disdain for romanticism ("sugar-coated claptrap", as he calls it). "You do have agreeable features" is his idea of a chat-up line. Firth's performance is effective precisely because he doesn't play for easy laughs. Its humour comes from the stark contrast between the way he looks – like a 1920s matinee idol – and the way he behaves like an old curmudgeon.

Emma Stone's Sophie, the femme fatale from Kalamazoo, is yet another in Allen's long line of mischievous, gamine-like sirens. In times past, you could imagine the same character being played by Mariel Hemingway or Mia Farrow.

To call Magic in the Moonlight very slight is hardly to demean it. It's a sketch of a movie in which gossamer-thin ideas and characters are stretched out with extraordinarily lavish costume and production design. Allen's misfortune is that when he takes himself too seriously, he is invariably told to lighten up but when he tries to make a gentle romantic comedy, he is accused of being silly and superficial. Magic in the Moonlight isn't ever going to be mistaken for one of Allen's masterpieces but in its own breezy way, it is perfectly enjoyable – and a film only he would or could have made.

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