Woody Allen’s 47th feature film as a director, and his eighth in Europe in the past nine years, is set among American and British expats on the French Riviera in 1928. The plot’s simple: A cynical magician (Colin Firth) sets out to expose as a fraud a beautiful clairvoyant (Emma Stone). The cinematography is radiant, the vintage cars and costumes are elegant, and if the comedy feels laboured, it’s all too lightweight to matter.
One distraction is that everything feels smothered in an extra helping of déjà vu sauce: another movie featuring a middle-aged misanthrope with a dewy younger woman; another film with stage magic as a theme. There are a few classic Allen one-liners (“a genius with the charm of a typhus bug”) and the usual palaver about realism and necessary illusions (Him: “We can’t go around deluding ourselves.” Her: “But we must, to get through life”). And the magician, an obvious Allen surrogate, is described by another character as “a perfect depressive with everything sublimated into his art.”
Whether you prefer to think of Magic as classic Woody Allen or just Woody Recycled, this edition of Allen’s annual movie offerings is at best a middling vintage that starts well but wheezes near the finish. The eye-catching opening, at a posh Berlin theatre, sees a magician in a crude Chinese get-up make an elephant disappear. That’s followed by his own disappearance and rematerialization. As he turns to the wings to the audience’s applause, he pulls off his pig-tailed bald cap and reveals himself to be a cranky Englishman, Stanley Crawford (Firth), who harshly chastises his assistants for their errors.
Stanley softens when he sees a backstage guest, a life-long magician friend named Howard (Simon McBurney), who has a proposition for him. As with many stage magicians, from Houdini to Penn and Teller, Stanley has a sideline in debunking spiritual hucksters, and Howard has a challenge for Stanley: A wealthy American family, living in a mansion in the south of France, is under the spell of a supposed clairvoyant, Sophie Baker (Stone). Howard hasn’t been able to figure out her tricks, so Stanley heads off to the Riviera, posing as Howard’s business friend. He meets the gullible widowed matriarch (Jacki Weaver) and her handsome, drippy son (Hamish Linklater), who wears tennis whites and sings out of tune to a plucked ukulele, expressing his adoration of Sophie, whom he calls a “visionary and a vision.”
Stanley, who makes no effort to hide his skepticism, is soon striking antagonistic sparks with Sophie. She’s especially annoying whenever she stares off into space with her wide green eyes, her hands raised around her temples, and reveals uncannily accurate facts about Stanley’s past. Reasonably alert viewers will guess what’s going on here about an hour before Stanley clues in, but this is more a P.G. Wodehouse mystery among the dopey aristos than a real puzzle.
Determined to uncover her secrets, Stanley persuades Sophie to go for a lovely coastal drive with him to visit his aunt (Eileen Atkins). Later, in Nice, Stanley and Sophie get caught in the rain and seek shelter in a planetarium, just as Allen and Diane Keaton did in Manhattan. To be fair, Allen doesn’t imitate only himself. Magic includes clear echoes of George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion and its musical version, My Fair Lady, with the autumn-spring romance, the middle-class, stuffed-shirt Englishman and the working-class beauty.
Given Allen’s personal history, some viewers and critics may squirm about the 28-year age gap between the leads (Firth is 53, Stone, 25) but, given the overall artificiality of the movie’s conceit and glib tone, it’s almost a moot point. Firth, in Mr. Darcy mode, is at first stiffly sarcastic and later contrite and sad, which women of various ages still seem to find acceptable. Stone, with her frank gaze and husky voice, seems well in control. Together, they have a friendly rapport, decent comic timing, and nothing so icky as romantic chemistry. No matter how soppy the lines are that Firth delivers, Stone regards him with affectionate tolerance, as she would a slightly dotty uncle, or perhaps her director. The movie is not magic, but the romance is nothing worse than mundane.