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Maybe a spoiler alert would have been in order before posing such leading questions. But it’s the movie, with its transparent plot, that spoils itself. It may be that Allen has mastered the art of screenwriting too well; this script feels like he wrote it in a trance, and not the kind where you channel the Muse. I imagine it could be a useful tool for teaching aspiring rom-com writers the basic formula on which to innovate. “Magic in the Moonlight” never gets to that second part.
It’s not all bad, of course. Visually the film is gorgeous. The Mediterranean scenery is exquisite, as are the country mansions and vintage cars. The acting is everything you could want it to be, especially by Firth and Eileen Atkins, who plays Stanley’s maiden aunt, Vanessa. And Allen himself can still supply witty dialogue here and there: “I always thought the unseen world was a good place to open a restaurant,” Stanley jokes. “Spirits have to eat somewhere.”
But none of this compensates for the tired plot, or for the tedious repetition of old tropes.
When it comes to a director as prolific as Allen, you expect some overlap, and that’s not a bad thing. The unmasking of a fortuneteller was a central plot point in “You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger” (2010), and references to stage magic popped up in movies like “Radio Days” (1987) and “Broadway Danny Rose” (1984). Both themes could have been perfectly delightful here if the rest of the movie weren’t so bad. But Allen’s other preoccupations have become wearisome, and even disturbing.
The philosophical heart of the movie lies in a series of questions that were already boring in the ’20s, and are even more so now. If God is dead and the material world is everything, can life have meaning? Is it better to be happy and wrong than to be miserable and right? Will love save us in the end? It’s not just that Allen has been asking these questions his entire career — it’s that the answers he’s arrived at are so self-serving.
For a long time there have been troublesome sexual and romantic themes in Allen’s movies. They were easy to brush off because of the masterpieces that he made, or because he’s old and out of touch, or because it didn’t seem to matter anymore. “Magic in the Moonlight” isn’t going to have a great effect on the culture either, truth be told.
But what once seemed like harmless foibles now appear in a more sinister light. Here, as in movies like “Mighty Aphrodite” (1995) and “Whatever Works” (2009), we have a beautiful younger woman pursuing an older man who seems not only oblivious to her charms, but also actively uninterested in them. When she finally breaks through, he has the power to accept or reject her, take her or leave her. It’s a juvenile fantasy in every way.