Magic in the Moonlight, Woody Allen's new film, stages a debate that will be familiar to anyone who has seen more than a couple of the previous 43. There are various ways to characterize the argument: between reason and superstition; between doubt and faith; between realism and magic. On one side is the belief in some kind of unseen, metaphysical force governing the universe; on the other is the certainty, shared by the director, that no such thing exists.
Not incidentally — and not for the first time in Allen's oeuvre — the opposed positions are advanced by a dyspeptic middle-aged intellectual and a much younger, relatively untutored woman. Among the big jokes this time around: She misattributes a literary quotation and seems never to have heard of Nietzsche.
If the idea of a universe of unmotivated chaos seems scary, rest assured that the reality of 98 minutes of unmotivated order is worse. Allen has had his ups and downs over the years. Rarely, though, has he put a story on screen that manifests so little energy, so little curiosity about its own ideas and situations. Magic in the Moonlight is less a movie than the dutiful recitation of themes and plot points conducted by a squad of costumed actors. The tidy narrative may advance with clockwork precision, but the clock's most prominent feature is the snooze button.
We are sometime between the world wars, in a fanciful Europe of leisure and refinement. Stanley, a stage magician who performs under the name Wei Ling Soo (and who is played by a grimly hard-working Colin Firth), is summoned to the French Riviera to expose a fraud. He also visits an aunt, played by Eileen Atkins, who is the only source of real delight in the movie despite being nothing more than a convenient cog in its machinery.
Stanley's target is Sophie (Emma Stone), a pretty and penniless American clairvoyant who has dazzled a rich family with her supposed gifts. While her business-minded mother (Marcia Gay Harden) works to extract money from the credulous, widowed matriarch (Jacki Weaver), Sophie reads minds, summons spirits and endures the ukulele serenades of the family's shallow scion (Hamish Linklater), who has fallen in love with her. Stanley wages a grouchy, sarcastic war on her credibility, only to find himself smitten by her gamine charm and persuaded by her claims of paranormal ability.
Allen has often accomplished much more with a good deal less. Some of his most satisfying pictures — Zelig, Sweet and Lowdown, Broadway Danny Rose — are spun from gossamer-thin nostalgic anecdotes. He has also, in movies as varied as The Purple Rose of Cairo and Midnight in Paris, indulged a taste for whimsical supernaturalism, performing elegant cinematic sleights of hand in a spirit of sweet pop-surrealist mischief.
Nothing like that animates this film, which plods through its picturesque settings (gorgeously shot by Darius Khondji) with the blocky deliberateness of a dinner-theater rehearsal. No credible spark ignites between Firth and Stone. She stands in the frame smiling wanly and swinging her arms while he impatiently reels off the kind of pedantic nonsense that is meant to signify superior intellect. She blinks. He scowls. It can only be love.
One of Wei Ling Soo's signature tricks is making an elephant disappear, and Magic in the Moonlight is sufficiently tedious that, once you're done admiring the linen suits, cloche hats and tennis sweaters, you may start thinking about other elephants in the room. For example: the curious matter of Stanley's stage persona, who sports red silk robes, a Fu Manchu mustache and heavy makeup. There's no doubt that such Orientalism was part of the popular culture of an earlier era, but then again, so was blackface, and it's unlikely that a present-day filmmaker would so blithely present his main character crooning in dialect with burnt cork on his cheeks.
Worse is the sour taste left by the romance between Stanley and Sophie. Stone, spindly in her flapper dresses, looks younger than 25, which makes the nearly 30-year gap between her and Firth — a discrepancy never alluded to on screen — even more striking.
Stanley has a briefly seen, occasionally mentioned fiancée named Olivia (Catherine McCormack), who is a fellow skeptic and an intellectual peer, meaning that she has no chance with him. Stanley's attachment to her is, he comes to realize, a purely cerebral, rational matter, whereas his slow-dawning infatuation with Sophie (who falls for him first) can only be magic.
Other words may come to mind.