Let others decide if film is an art. For Woody Allen, filmmaking is a reflex. Since 1969's Take the Money and Run, he has written and directed a movie damn near every year, screw fickle critics, public scandal and the Hollywood rule of dumb. At 78, Allen shows no sign of slowing down. Not every Allen film reaches the heights that extend from Annie Hall, Manhattan and Hannah and Her Sisters to Crimes and Misdemeanors, Midnight in Paris and Blue Jasmine. But each bears the unique stamp of a virtuoso who sees the world, sweet and lowdown, like no one else.
On its glittering surface, Magic in the Moonlight looks like an effervescent throwaway. Set in the 1920s and packed with characters who tool around the South of France in impossibly high fashion, it's the summer's most beguiling romantic comedy. The gifted Darius Khondji (The Immigrant) shoots it with such sumptuous decadence that it's fun just to wallow in the sight of the rich enjoying their privileges. But is it more? Does it need to be? There will be debates. What I see is Allen seesawing from giddy to wise and back again as he reflects on the tremendous act of will it takes to believe in the magic of love.
Colin Firth, oozing arrogant British charm, plays Stanley Crawford, a cynic who prides himself on sniffing out fakes. The fact that Stanley makes his living on the world stage hilariously decked out as Chinese magician Wei Ling Soo has only sharpened his deductive powers. Now Stanley is on a mission. His friend Howard Burkan (Simon McBurney) has dragged him to the Catledge mansion on the Côte d'Azur to debunk Sophie Baker (Emma Stone), an American spiritualist who has left the family in her thrall. Can Sophie arrange a séance to unite Grace Catledge (the wondrous Jacki Weaver) with her dead husband? Can Sophie steal the heart of Grace's flighty son, Brice (Hamish Linklater), and enjoy a life of luxury for herself and her sharp-eyed mother (Marcia Gay Harden)? All eyes are on Stanley, who sneers, "She won't fool me."
The actors, including Eileen Atkins, whose wit is martinidry as Stanley's Aunt Vanessa, are a pleasure to be around. But the film depends on discerning a spark between Sophie and the older Stanley. Luckily, Firth and Stone make a magnetic pair of opposites. Stone, free from all the Spider-Man nonsense, lights up the screen. And Firth is wonderfully appealing when he finally lets loose with the feelings Stanley has locked inside. Taking shelter from a storm in an abandoned observatory, Sophie and Stanley regard the stars, seductive to her, menacing to him. That's Allen for you, searching for a refuge from the dull reality of life that can't be deconstructed as a trick. Is love the answer? Or is love too volatile to trust? Melancholy and doubt may seem like gloomy qualities to blend into an amorous romp. But that shot of gravity is what makes Magic in the Moonlight memorable and distinctively Woody Allen.