By Sam Adams | Criticwire July 18, 2014 at 11:08AM
Woody Allen's "Magic in the Moonlight" has thus far been notable for two things: being the first movie of his released after his former stepdaughter Dylan Farrow publicly renewed the allegation that he molested her, and the extraordinarily bad design of its posters. The first wave of reviews, duly time-released at midnight last night, don't seem especially likely to change that. While most keep Allen's private life out of the frame — barring Nicolas Rapold's damning observation, in Film Comment, that the movie is about "an older entertainer trying to prove a young woman is lying" — they mostly find it more agreeable than remarkable, especially following in the wake of last year's "Blue Jasmine," which won an Oscar for star Cate Blanchett. The story, set largely in the pre-Depression south of France, focuses on a magician (Colin Firth), known in his professional Fu Manchu getup as Wei Ling-soo, who becomes obsessed with disproving the spiritualist claims of a young American woman (Emma Stone). It's not the first of Allen's films in which magic, or skepticism about the unseen world, has played a part, and it doesn't feel like it: Allen is on familiar turf here, and he's mostly content to put the top down and admire the scenery. Your mileage will vary, likely in direct proportion to how much ambient fondness you have for Allen and his work.
Reviews of "Magic in the Moonlight"
Scott Foundas, Variety
A welcome balm for the blockbuster-addled soul, Allen’s 44th feature finds the director back in the 1920s Gallic mood of 2011’s “Midnight in Paris,” with the star-crossed lovers this time held apart not by time but rather by philosophical inclinations. While the result may not quite equal “Midnight's" box office bonanza, expect “Magic” to handily corner the upscale adult demo for the remainder of summer, continuing the Woodman’s late-career hot streak.
"Magic in the Moonlight" belongs to the pool of lesser Allen comedies, yet Firth and Emma Stone — as the alleged necromancer Sophie Baker, the object of Stanley's scrutiny and eventually his affections — bring all the zany energy they can muster. Unfortunately, unlike Cate Blanchett's remarkable capacity to wrestle the material of last year's "Blue Jasmine" into her own furious showcase, the actors are provided with a limited range of options.
Allen’s preoccupation with death and his own mortality is well-documented in his films and prose, and part of that obsession may have been escaping the harshness of reality. But behind all the existential dread that has troubled characters across his films, lays the question: is that all there is, this misery of life? Or could there be something more? These questions define the color of his latest picture, “Magic In The Moonlight,” an occasionally delightful, if familiar and sometimes strained comedy, taking place in the 1930s along the shimmering coastline of the Côte d'Azur.
A quintessential “late” work from a filmmaker who has, in his waining and controversial years, become less of an artist than he is an institution, this new one finds Woody Allen effortlessly regurgitating his most familiar modes and tropes with such élan that the movie’s mediocrity ends up being its greatest charm.
Todd McCarthy, Hollywood Reporter
Set in an F. Scott Fitzgerald-esque Cote d’Azur populated by rich Brits and Yanks, this story of an imperious maestro’s plan to cut off an alluring arriviste at the knees could have been filmed in 1935 by George Cukor, Frank Borzage or Gregory La Cava, starred John Barrymore and Carole Lombard and probably would have been the better for it. It certainly would have more comfortably fit the Depression-era zeitgeist, as well as the public’s ready acceptance of fluffy, patently absurd comic premises.
Alan Scherstuhl, Village Voice
His latest, "Magic in the Moonlight," plays like a sumptuous vacation, its stars larking in '20s finery about the grandest estates of Provence and Côte d'Azur. Each frame is buttered by heavenly wealth — the splendor is part "Gatsby," part Mount Olympus from the original "Clash of the Titans." But as the stars roam those gardens and vistas in their jaunty flapper couture, the story feels shapeless, un-tailored, defiantly off the rack.
Nicolas Rapold, Film Comment
Diverting but inconsequential, the toothless takes-one-to-know-one story coasts on Firth's practiced wryness and Stone's insouciant charm that acquires a glint of antagonism once her livelihood is threatened.
Not unusual in an Allen film, the acting is perhaps the strongest suit in the entire enterprise. At first Stone does not seem up to the task of going up against Firth, either as an actor or character. As the plot, such as it is, thickens, she becomes surer of herself and begins to deflect his verbal spittle and exhibit her own subdued strengths; her resilient power kicks in. It’s not just because Stanley is beginning to question his worldview: Her Sophie exhibits a toughness beyond her years, without any butch or bitchy posing.
Inkoo Kang, the Wrap
Stone is loose and funny and irresistible as ever, so it's frustrating to watch her character become increasingly besotted with an older man who could learn a thing or two about manners from Henry Higgins. Stanley shares some similarities to one of the characters most identified with Firth, the principled-to-the-point-of-obnoxious Mr. Darcy of the first half of “Pride and Prejudice,” but the moment when the insufferably pretentious and judgmental duckling turns into a gracious, affectionate swan never arrives.