Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead.
I admit it’s hard to say when that was. Would it have been in the late 1980s, after the dark and soulful “Crimes and Misdemeanors”? Was it in the late ’90s, after “Sweet and Lowdown,” starring an incomparable Sean Penn? Or was it earlier in this decade, after the light but charming “Midnight in Paris”?
One thing is for sure — it was before he made his latest movie, “Magic in the Moonlight,” and it was before he was accused, again, of molesting his adopted daughter, Dylan Farrow. You can debate the propriety of discussing Allen’s alleged misdoings in the context of his films. But if you want to argue that rotten people can also make great art, “Magic in the Moonlight” provides little evidence of that.
The movie is a period piece, taking place in Europe at the tail end of the 1920s. It opens at a performance in Berlin by the magician Wei Ling Soo, who is really an Englishman named Stanley Crawford (played by Colin Firth) exploiting the decade’s enthusiasm for chinoiserie.
It takes only a brief cabaret-side chat between Stanley and his friend Howard Burkan (Simon McBurney) to set up the plot and move the action to the South of France. There we meet the wealthy widow Grace Catledge (Jacki Weaver) and her son, Brice (Hamish Linklater), who are acquaintances of Stanley and Howard.
To both men’s distress, the Catledges have been taken in by a self-proclaimed medium, Sophie Baker (Emma Stone), and her scheming mother (Marcia Gay Harden). While Sophie seduces Catledge mère by channeling the widow’s dead husband, she is wooed by the clueless son, who serenades her on the ukulele. The mother pledges to set up a research institute for spiritual phenomena; her son promises yacht trips to the Greek islands and piles of clothing and jewels.
Like many real-life stage magicians, Stanley is not only an illusionist, but also a professional skeptic of the paranormal. And so it becomes his job to debunk Sophie’s dime-store mysticism and save the poor Catledges from their own gullibility.
By now you can imagine what happens next. Will the handsome Stanley and the beautiful Sophie — he a cynical rationalist, she a starry-eyed swindler — discover that despite their differences they actually have feelings for each other? Will those feelings be tested, and at some point seem hopeless? Will love eventually triumph, and will everyone live happily ever after?