Woody Allen left his beloved New York City after many years and movies and headed to Europe to presumably recharge his creative batteries with a new series of films, one being his critically acclaimed, greatest commercial hit "Midnight in Paris."
He continues his positive Euro-streak to a lesser degree with his minorly mirthful "Magic in the Moonlight," a whimsical, gimmicky comedy that contemplates the possibility that God and other spiritual mysteries might just be delusional coping mechanisms for the masses.
"Magic in the Moonlight"★ ★ ★
Starring: Colin Firth, Emma Stone, Simon McBurney, Jacki Weaver, Marcia Gay Harden, Hamish Linklater, Eileen Atkins
Directed by: Woody Allen
Other: A Perdido Productions release. Rated PG-13 for smoking, suggestive remarks. At the River East and Century Centre in Chicago, Renaissance Place in Highland Park and the Evanston Century 18. 100 minutes
Allen was famously fascinated by illusions and magic acts as a teen, and that interest no doubt shaped his gruff protagonist Stanley Crawford, a popular London magician who in 1928 performs as an Asian named "Wei Ling Soo."
Colin Firth plays Crawford as an arrogant, humorless, testy sort, perhaps an ideal personality to run around the continent debunking con-artist psychics who prey on the weak and emotional.
One day, his best bud and fawning fellow magician Howard Burkan (Simon McBurney) asks for help in debunking a young psychic named Sophie (Emma Stone), who has been seancing money out of some rich Americans, the Catledges, living in southern France.
Sophie knows so many intimate details about the Catledges that Mrs. Catledge (Aussie star Jacki Weaver) pays her huge sums -- and promises more to Sophie's manager mother (Marcia Gay Harden) -- so she can communicate with her deceased husband.
So, Crawford postpones a trip with his fiancee Olivia (Catherine McCormack) and, assuming the identity of a businessman named Stanley Taplinger, heads off to France where it's no love at first spite when he meets Sophie and instantly accuses her of fabricating lies and swindling the Catledges.
"My mental impressions are cloudy," Sophie says, her open hands acting like spiritual antennas.
"Are they cumulus clouds or cirrus?" Crawford sarcastically replies.
Yet, as this hostile investigation continues, the master debunker begins to doubt himself. How does she know his deepest secrets? Could Sophie be the real thing? Maybe she can prove what he has always been able to disprove: the existence of a spirit world, of an afterlife, of God.
Firth's Crawford is a twitty combination of escape artist Harry Houdini -- who debunked clairvoyants in his search for a confirmation of an afterlife -- and American magician William Ellsworth Robinson, who also debunked con artists and performed as a Chinese magician, Chung Ling Soo, until a bullet-catching trick killed him in 1918.
Wisely, Firth never softens his character's cutting, crusty edges, despite clearly falling under the spell of Sophie's moon-sized eyes and charismatic, unassuming personality.
"I believe the dull reality of life is all there is!" he says to Sophie. "But you are proof there's more ... more mystery, more magic!"
But is there really? Or has Crawford simply not noticed the mystery of life, the magic of falling in love?
Savvy filmgoers will probably be way ahead of the plot in "Magic in the Moonlight." (I myself have a nasty habit of writing down "surprises" in movies long before they occur. This was easy.)
But Allen's screenplay bubbles with witty wordsmithing executed with panache by a crackerjack cast, including Eileen Atkins as Crawford's sensible Aunt Vanessa and Hamish Linklater as Brice Catledge, a shallow sort who endlessly serenades Sophie with insipid songs and a ukulele.
Maybe it's true that we use self-delusion to make life bearable.
I like to think that good movies can do that, too.