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Woody Allen's dizzy rom-com about Jazz Age psychics disappoints, but it's hardly his worst 

Visual beauty masks a lax script in Magic in the Moonlight.

Courtesy Sony Pictures Classics

Visual beauty masks a lax script in Magic in the Moonlight.

I've been amused by the early reactions to MAGIC IN THE MOONLIGHT, the latest from nebbishy ol' workhorse Woody Allen. Some believe that it's his most disappointing film yet. Seriously? Worse than Match Point or Melinda and Melinda or Whatever Works or Anything Else or Hollywood Ending or You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger or Blue Jasmine?

I don't know about you, but I've spent the last 15 years or so getting used to the Wood-man phoning it in, hitting the same themes and tropes over and over. Frankly, it's more surprising when he makes a halfway decent film such as Midnight in Paris or Vicky Cristina Barcelona.

But there's no denying that Magic finds Allen on autopilot. It goes back to his first love, magic, mostly conjured here by Stanley (Colin Firth), an arrogant 1920s illusionist who performs under the name Wei Ling Soo. As a friend recently reminded me, the results are rarely good when Allen returns to the magic well—see Scoop and The Curse of the Jade Scorpion.

Stanley gets a kick out of debunking charlatan clairvoyants, which he gets to do when an old friend (Simon McBurney) takes him to the French Riviera to help disprove the powers of Sophie (Emma Stone), a psychic who has a rich American family in her thrall. Though Sophie "sees" clear visions, it's obvious that Allen didn't have one when he came up with this story.

It's basically an old-school, whimsical rom-com setup: Firth's smug magic man begins to let his guard down as Stone's dizzy mystic wins him over with her teacup eyes and secret knowledge. Allen takes this as a chance to indulge once again in some of his favorite debates: logic versus spirituality, real versus unreal, dreary pessimism versus insane optimism.

This is predictable, well-worn territory for Allen, but he still manages to paint himself into a corner by the end. He tries to find a cohesive way to wrap things up without seeming hurried or contrived, failing on both counts.

It's bad enough that Firth and Stone's characters, stock as they may be, are the only ones Allen gives deep personalities. The rest of the cast (including Marcia Gay Harden as Sophie's scheming mom and Jacki Weaver as the family's wide-eyed matriarch) are underwritten to the point of irrelevancy. The only supporting player who puts a memorable stamp on the film is Eileen Atkins as Stanley's sage aunt.

Magic isn't bad-looking, especially with Midnight in Paris and To Rome With Love shooter Darius Khondji on board. As in most of Allen's movies from the past decade, the director ventures out of New York to shoot in a visually stunning locale that's lush enough for a travelogue. Yes, the story it contains is ill-prepared and mediocre. But on a list of Allen's worst films, this, my friends, would rank very low.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Hack Magic."

Film Details

Magic in the Moonlight
Rated PG-13 · 98 min. · 2014
Official Site: sonyclassics.com/magicinthemoonlight
Director: Woody Allen
Writer: Woody Allen
Cast: Emma Stone, Colin Firth, Marcia Gay Harden, Hamish Linklater, Jacki Weaver, Eileen Atkins and Erica Leerhsen

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