In theaters Friday, July 25
2 1/2 stars (out of 4 stars)
An enchanting look at unlikely powers of love, this comedy is fluffier than a croissant just out of the oven.
That's not good enough. By now, we expect more from a sharp-witted, prolific genius like writer-director Woody Allen. At 78 years old, he's still at the pinnacle of his profession, dutifully releasing one original film a year. In the past decade alone, he's crafted such masterworks as Blue Jasmine, Match Point and Midnight in Paris. It's not too much to want another Vicky Cristina Barcelona — not another Scoop.
But la-di-da, guess what we're stuck with. So let's go back to Europe in 1928. A simpler, sunnier time. Stanley (Colin Firth) is an internationally renowned British magician who performs under the act of a Chinese conjurer named Wei Ling Soo. He might call himself pragmatic. Others would call him an arrogant blowhard. After a show, a fellow illusionist invites him to a friend's home in the south of France to suss out a possible con artist. Seems a young American named Sophie Baker (Emma Stone) is passing herself off as a psychic extraordinaire. Smug Stanley gleefully brags that he can't wait to catch her in a lie and "throw it back in her face!"
Until they meet, that is. Though Stanley doesn't reveal his true identity or profession when he introduces himself to Sophie, in an instant, she senses an Asian heritage. Hmmm. . . During a séance, wide-eyed Sophie successfully connects to the great beyond and reaches a client's deceased husband. (A lit candle even rises above the table!) Then, during a visit to see Stanley's wealthy aunt, Sophie clutches one of her necklaces and is able to rattle off her most intimate details. Stanley is won over — and in more ways than one.
Like Allen's most recent outing, the sublime Blue Jasmine, this film aims to examine angles of deception. In this case, there's nothing more than meets the eye. Stanley can only attempt to debunk Sophie's sixth sense so many times, making the narrative and humor oh-so slight. The auteur surely has something strong to say about religion and philosophy, yet nobody is going to leave the theater having any more insight into his views. Or, on a more basic level, understand what makes his characters tick. This matters in a comedy too! Sophie's smitten suitor (Hamish Linklater), for example, courts her by chirping sweet nothings on a ukulele. That's it. The end. Somehow we're expected to believe that this vivacious beauty accepts a wedding proposal from this fool/borderline stalker. A third-act twist raises even more questions about her M.O.
Only the chemistry between dapper Firth and the luminous Stone goes beyond smoke and mirrors. And yes, even with a 28-year age difference between them, the two manage to pull it off. It's evident as soon they duck for cover from the rain inside an empty observatory and Sophie innocently asks Stanley to put his arm around her to stop her from shivering. A single hushed image of the pair looking up at the titular moonlight is just lovely.
Stone began the summer single-handedly elevating the Amazing Spider-Man 2 and now, with her dazzling smile and charm, she saves the day again in this ho-hum effort. Wanna talk about real movie magic? Start with her.