The world premiere of a Woody Allen film is always a bit of an event, and on the back of his revived box office fortunes (with Midnight in Paris) and critical reputation (for the Oscar-winning Blue Jasmine), his new one, Magic in the Moonlight, has been anticipated with some fervour.
It was nowhere to be seen at the last Cannes film festival – where, with the film's Riviera setting, it was thought a certainty to screen – but instead received its debut screening in New York on 17 July.
With an eclectic cast including Colin Firth, Emma Stone, Jacki Weaver, Marcia Gay Harden and Simon McBurney, Magic in the Moonlight has been shrouded in the habitual Allen secrecy since its title was revealed last October 2013. The film's US distributors Sony Pictures Classics filled in lots of the blanks on10 July, when they released a long-form synopsis, explaining that Firth plays a stage magician who is on a mission to debunk professional clairvoyant Stone. Now, however, the first reviews are in.
They are led by the two US trade papers Variety and the Hollywood Reporter; while neither are acclaiming Magic in the Moonlight as a Blue Jasmine level late-masterpiece, Variety is considerably kinder, with its chief film critic Scott Foundas describing the film as "a high-spirited bauble that goes down easy thanks to fleet comic pacing, a surfeit of ravishing Cote d’Azur vistas and the genuinely reactive chemistry of stars Colin Firth and Emma Stone". It also suggests that the 1928-set film will "handily corner the upscale adult demo for the remainder of summer, continuing the Woodman’s late-career hot streak". (In non-Variety-speak, that means they predict that it will have a strong appeal to the maturer end of the film audience.) Foundas also praises Magic's photography, calling its "elegantly choreographed traveling master shots bathed in natural light" a key part of "one of his most beautifully made films."
The Reporter, on the other hand, calls it "a fugacious bit of whimsy that can only be judged minor Woody Allen". Critic Todd McCarthy said it "feels like a pale attempt to recapture a portion of the public that made Midnight in Paris by far Allen’s biggest hit ever." He goes on to suggest that "Magic in the Moonlight does have a not-disagreeable expensive-vacation vibe to it. But the one-dimensional characters are mostly ones you’d want to avoid rather than spend a holiday with." McCarthy also has little time for Firth's performance, calling it "uncomfortable", but is a little more complimentary to Stone, describing her as "lively" and "spontaneous".
In contrast, critic Howard Feinstein, writing for the British trade magazine Screen International, declares that Firth "shines" in his role, and that "the acting is perhaps the strongest suit in the entire enterprise". In his view, the film's technical polish is a drawback: "The movie comes across as a tourist brochure, a collection of beautiful, inert postcards ... the vintage cars gleam, as if they have just been washed and shined; the perfect period costumes seem just too freshly pressed." But Feinstein reserves great praise for a key scene in which Stone and Firth shelter from a rainstorm together: it possesses an "aching beauty" and is "pure magic".
Calling Magic in the Moonlight a "featherweight comedy", the magazine Little White Lies has a more angled take, suggesting it's "a bit like having lunch with your ageing parents: strained, overly familiar, sometimes amusing but seldom genuinely funny". Critic David Ehrlich's view is that it's "the kind of story that Allen could write in his sleep", that the director "guides the story on auto-pilot, effortlessly pushing another fanciful premise to its logical conclusion" and that it moves forward "with the mechanical transparency of a car that’s lost its hood" – but that this familiarity actually works in the film's favour: Allen is "effortlessly regurgitating his most familiar modes and tropes with such élan that the movie’s mediocrity ends up being its greatest charm".
Magic in the Moonlight is released on 25 July in the US, on 28 August in Australia, and 19 September in the UK.
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