Even before the harrowing details of his daughter’s sexual-abuse allegations against him were published in The New York Times last February, Woody Allen’s work was getting tough to take. His annual offerings more often than not obsessively orbit around not-quite-appropriate relationships between fresh young ingénues and much older men. Infidelity runs riot through his narratives, as does an uncomfortable undercurrent of lady-bashing. In each requisite May/December romance, his male lead wisecracks at the expense of the gorgeous youngster by his side, wearing away at her self-esteem until she’s putty in his hands. It’s an elementary tactic for those familiar with pick-up-artist culture, but one that takes on an especially disheartening sheen when staged again and again by one of America’s most celebrated filmmakers.
This is certainly the case with Magic in the Moonlight. Set during the 1920s inside the mansions dotting the French Riviera, the film stars 53-year-old Colin Firth as a jaded magician tasked with exposing and discrediting a charming young spiritualist (played by 25-year-old Emma Stone) whose jazz-age séances have become all the rage on the Côte d’Azur. The beautiful psychic manages to baffle and amaze even her greatest detractor, and wackiness ensues. But the magician’s admiration doesn’t hamper his inclination to undermine her on everything from her looks to her life choices at every turn. Of course Firth and Stone are both undeniably charming, and Allen is a master of sumptuous settings. But when it comes time for the film’s budding central relationship to bloom, audiences tired of Allen’s schtick will be left cold.