Woody Allen’s 44th film is an amuse bouche without a meal, a dollop of whipped cream without the dessert underneath. In last year’s film, “Blue Jasmine,” the strength of the performances (especially Oscar-winner Cate Blanchett) and the resonance of its Bernie Madoff-ish crossed with “Streetcar Named Desire” plot line provided a simulacrum of seriousness of purpose that suggested a deeper meaning. But this year’s pastiche has no such pretensions and no such weight as entertainment or as ostensible exploration of one of Allen’s favorite themes, the battle between faith and reason. And of course exploration of his even more favorite theme, the generative power of an adoring young woman in the life of a desiccated and lonely older man. Even without the queasy context of the allegations of child abuse and the reality of Allen’s marriage to the daughter of his one-time romantic partner and co-parent, this theme feels increasingly icky.
The jazz age 1920’s setting among rich Americans on the glamorous French Riviera (the same setting as Hitchcock’s classic “To Catch a Thief”) may resemble a fancy chocolate box, but the candy inside is strictly low grade. Allen’s greatest advantage at this point is that everyone wants to work with him. Two of the hottest stars in Hollywood, Colin Firth and Emma Stone play the leads in this story of a man of reason, empiricism, and proof who is (for a while at least) trumped by faith in things unseen.
Firth plays Stanley Crawford, a magician who performs on stage as a caricature of a mysterious man from China called “Wei Ling Soo.” Not only his tricks are illusions — his very persona is as well. He is abrasive and judgmental and prides himself on being committed to pure logic and debunking those who pretend to do real magic, including mediums with claims of contact with spirits and ghosts.
An old school friend and fellow magician named Howard (Simon McBurney) appears just as Stanley is about to go on vacation with his level-headed fiancee. He has a proposition. Some wealthy friends are being taken in by a young American named Sophie Baker (Stone) who claims to commune with the spirit world, and their relatives want her to be revealed as a fraud. Stanley is enticed less by the prospect of a reward than by the chance to triumph over someone making false claims and the chance to triumph over Howard, who admits he has been unable to find a flaw in the medium’s act. In addition, he will get the chance to visit his favorite relative, who lives on the Riviera, Aunt Vanessa (a superbly vinegar-y Eileen Atkins, who steals the film).
So Stanley and Howard visit the rich widow (Jacki Weaver as Grace) and her son Brice (Haimish Linklater), who is besotted with Sophie, and hopes to win her heart by serenading her with his ukelele. Also in the house is Sophie’s mother (Marcia Gay Harden), who is interested in nailing down the details of the foundation Grace plans to endow for Sophie.
It’s all pretty jolly for a while, though Stone and Firth have no chemistry as antagonists or otherwise. Stone is utterly beguiling, as always, despite Allen’s inability to situate the camera to get the most from her lovely face. (She is already working on his next film; here’s hoping they do better.) Other than Aunt Vanessa, though, the characters are all thinly, even limply imagined. Even Stone’s natural effervescence cannot give Sophie the necessary depth to make her interesting either as a fraud or as a genuine medium. Linklater and Weaver are both criminally underused.
There are some sharp lines, but the structure is by-the-numbers, including a visit to a celestial observatory for shelter from a rainstorm and a last-act hospital scene to raise the stakes on the faith vs. science debate. The problem is that most of the time, we need access to both, and this film’s shortcomings are proof in both categories.
Parents should know that this film includes smoking, drinking, and sexual references.
Family discussion: Does there have to be an absolute line between reason and faith? How do you decide which is appropriate in particular circumstances?
If you like this, try: “Blithe Spirit,” “Midnight in Paris,” and “The Curse of the Jade Scorpion”