Though you likely come for the caustic, quotable dialogue, Woody Allen films tend to linger in the memory because of their consideration of weighty, resonant philosophical questions. His latest, insofar as it tries to get its head around - amongst other things - the meaning of life, is not wanting for lofty intentions. Yet, beneath a surface of light-hearted humor and appealing performances, it leaves you craving for more emotional depth and complexity.
The plot, following the tone of Allen’s earlier romps, is fairly simple. After touring the world as a well-known magician, a cynical Englishman (a marvelous Colin Firth) is enlisted to debunk an American spirit medium (Emma Stone) who has convinced a rich family that she can contact the dead. A lot of the funniest material comes from watching these two very different people (he’s logical and brash, she’s romantic and coy) scoping each other out. Although he initially dismisses her as an elaborate con artist, he slowly falls under her spell as she performs miracle after miracle, which in turn makes him reappraise his own nihilistic lifestyle.
This, like Hannah and Her Sisters, is an opportunity for Allen to mull over his own doubts about the purpose of existence, as an adamantly rational man is forced to consider the possibility that there is more to life than meets the eye. You’d only wish that the same could be said of Magic in the Moonlight, which, despite all pretensions, is really all about the superficial pleasures, a fun-but-feeble excuse to whisk us away to glamorous 1920’s France.
But, while a shallow center will make it difficult to recall within a few days, this still has the edge over most romantic comedies. For one thing, the quality of writing doesn’t waver - there are several excellent ripostes and a dim, ukulele-strumming suitor is used sparingly. For another, the leads prove perfect conduits for Allen’s one-liners. Stone’s airy charm makes up for some thin characterisation and Firth all but runs away with the film as a haughty intellectual who uses paying a compliment as an opportunity to pat himself on the back. And if the final act gets a bit tongue-tied and nonsensical, that’s kind of the point.
For his next trick, Allen has made a breezy (if slight) rumination of love, life and death, only blighted by the fact that he’s explored these themes before, and better.