“Paranormal activity has always enlivened Woody Allen’s writing and films,” writes Don Steinberg in the Wall Street Journal. “Jeff Daniels steps out of a movie screen to romance Mia Farrow (The Purple Rose of Cairo, 1985). Owen Wilson is transported back in time to mingle with literary stars of the 1920s (Midnight in Paris, 2011). Humphrey Bogart (Play It Again, Sam, 1972) and Alec Baldwin (To Rome With Love, 2012) materialize to play phantom Cyranos for lovestruck schnooks. So in Mr. Allen’s new comedy, Magic in the Moonlight, when a skeptical illusionist (Colin Firth) is recruited to debunk a fortune teller (Emma Stone) who seems to be conning a rich dowager (Jacki Weaver), there’s no knowing how it will turn out. He might expose her as a fraud. Or there could be some real magic going on.”
To the list of magical moments in Allen’s oeuvre, Variety‘s Scott Foundas adds “Alice , The Curse of the Jade Scorpion  and Scoop , the last of which Allen himself has aptly referred to as ‘a trivial little Kleenex of a film.’ By that measure, Allen’s latest is more of a monogrammed silk handkerchief, with Firth smoothly stepping into the role of Stanley Crawford, a celebrated London prestidigitator who performs in yellowface under the stage name Wei Ling-soo… A nod to the 19th-century American magician William Ellsworth Robinson (who performed as the Chinese Chung Ling-soo), it’s a tailor-made part for Firth’s dyspeptic charisma, and reps one of the few times Allen has successfully cast an onscreen surrogate who doesn’t slavishly mimic his own line readings and mannerisms. (Firth is closer here to the Rex Harrison of My Fair Lady, a likeness Allen acknowledges in an homage to that film’s famous final shot.)”
“At first Stone does not seem up to the task of going up against Firth, either as an actor or character,” finds Howard Feinstein, writing for Screen Daily. “As the plot, such as it is, thickens, she becomes surer of herself and begins to deflect his verbal spittle and exhibit her own subdued strengths; her resilient power kicks in.”
For the Hollywood Reporter‘s Todd McCarthy, Magic in the Moonlight is “minor Woody Allen. From the 1920s French setting to the dreamily romantic title, this feels like a pale attempt to recapture a portion of the public that made Midnight in Paris by far Allen’s biggest hit ever. There’s a reason the film didn’t premiere at Cannes last May, just down the road from where it was shot…. Lushly shot on film and in widescreen by Midnight in Paris DP Darius Khondji, sumptuously decked out with period costumes by Sonia Grande and upper-crust settings by production designer Anne Seibel and awash in upbeat period ditties on the soundtrack, 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.”
At TheWrap, Inkoo Kang argues that Magic is “another insulting exercise in convincing audiences that we should embrace those who love to hate us…. The romance’s arc is such a middle-aged crank’s manic-pixie-dream-girl fantasy, complete with older man learning to enjoy life again through his younger paramour while still retaining his unfailing sense of superiority to her, that it wouldn’t have been surprising if the third-act twist turned out to be that he was a vampire feeding off her youth and vitality.”
Updates: “Magic in the Moonlight is a bit like having lunch with your aging parents,” suggests David Ehrlich at Little White Lies: “strained, overly familiar, sometimes amusing but seldom genuinely funny—you count the minutes until it’s over only to spend the rest of the day wishing that it had never ended. A quintessential ‘late’ work from a filmmaker who has, in his waining and controversial years, become less of an artist than he is an institution, this new one finds Woody Allen effortlessly regurgitating his most familiar modes and tropes with such élan that the movie’s mediocrity ends up being its greatest charm.”
It “won’t do much to sway proponents or detractors from their own perspectives, though taken at face value, it’s one of Allen’s most charmingly conceived and performed efforts,” writes Keith Uhlich for Time Out. “Allen’s never going to be Ernst Lubitsch, and there’s a bit of his latter-day laziness on display. (Few directors are as fond of one-and-done master shots that seem envisioned by a loafer longing for the five o’clock whistle.) Yet Magic still casts a lovely, lingering spell.”
Owen Gleiberman, let go a while back by EW, is now the new film critic for BBC.com: “Magic in the Moonlight is Allen’s most gratifyingly airy concoction in a while, but it’s also a comedy that insists, in the end, on making an overly rational case for the power of the irrational.”
Promoting You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger a few years ago, Woody Allen spoke about magic, the supernatural and his own worldview
“Last year in these pages,” writes the Voice‘s Alan Scherstuhl, “Stephanie Zacharek compared going to see Allen’s annual offering to checking in on an elderly relative you hope is having a good day. A trick I’ve picked up is always to try to get such a relative to tell a story you haven’t heard before. Is it too much to ask the same of one of the world’s most distinguished filmmakers?”
“Many of Woody Allen’s works have been set in this time period,” writes Jordan Hoffman at Film.com, “but none have attempted to actually be a movie from that era, and at first blush Magic in the Moonlight really does feel like a time capsule…. This picture isn’t as showy or obvious as one of his (many) masterpieces, but it is quite good and deserves your time and respect.”
“48 years since Allen’s first feature What’s Up, Tiger Lily, there’s a clean distinction between endearing Allen comedies and afterthoughts,” writes Indiewire‘s Eric Kohn. “Magic in the Moonlight unquestionably falls into the latter category.”
Updates, 7/19: Edward Helmore attended the premiere in New York for the Observer and it seems that both he and Woody Allen were pleased with the turnout. Particularly since the year began with Allen’s adopted daughter Dylan Farrow renewing accusations that he’d sexually molested her when she was seven. “One veteran film agent said last week that it was significant that New York society had turned out to support him. The original accusations had been a professional disaster for Allen, but their repetition had seemed to damage ex-wife Mia Farrow—who is now perceived by some as the vengeful ex-partner—more.”
Buzzfeed‘s Alison Willmore listened to Allen telling the press about the meaninglessness of life but then adding: “I’ve spent the last 45 years escaping into movies. I work with beautiful women and charming men, funny comedians and dramatic artists. I’m presented with costumes and great music to choose from and sets and I travel a certain amount to places. So for my whole life I’ve been living in a bubble. And I like it.”
Marlow Stern interviews Allen for the Daily Beast, and among the topics covered are Elaine Strich, Emma Stone, making movies abroad, Louis C.K., Manhattan as an island for the rich and Diane Keaton.
Updates, 7/21: David Denby in the New Yorker: “As romantic comedy, Magic in the Moonlight is formulaic; you can see the plot reversals before they come. At times, the movie sounds like an overwritten drawing-room comedy from eighty years ago, or like Shaw without the irony. But Firth, in a broad-ranging performance—from rage to enchantment and back again—carries it through. It’s his show.”
For David Lee Dallas, writing at Slant, this is “a film of obvious characterizations and even more obvious plot machinations that render its moment-to-moment charms moot.”
2.5 out of five stars from Nicholas Bell at Ioncinema.
Updates, 7/22: Listening (35’21”). Woody Allen makes his first appearance on a podcast—Josh Horowitz‘s.
Meantime, neither Kate Aurthur nor Alison Willmore like Magic much, and they discuss why at Buzzfeed.
Updates, 7/23: For David Thomson, writing for the New Republic, Magic is “awful and unnecessary. There is no magic, no moonlight, no chemistry, and no impediment to 98 minutes seeming like a day and a half. The old question returns (after the burst of raw energy from Cate Blanchett): How or why does Allen keep making pictures when he seems so unimpressed by people and so indifferent to the medium?”
“Many of the 44 features he has written and directed revel in deception, either criminal or emotional,” writes Time‘s Richard Corliss. “His characters pretend to be what they’re not, taking down more gullible souls and often stealing their hearts. That’s the theme of Magic in the Moonlight, and the title cues viewers to which side of the debate Allen is on: some call it fraud, he says enchantment. A minor comic diversion about séances and illusions, the film stacks up as not great, not awful but medium Woody.”
Updates, 7/25: “If the idea of a universe of unmotivated chaos seems scary, rest assured that the reality of 98 minutes of unmotivated order is worse,” writes A.O. Scott in the NYT. “Mr. Allen has had his ups and downs over the years. Rarely, though, has he put a story on screen that manifests so little energy, so little curiosity about its own ideas and situations.”
“Can we all stop making excuses for Woody Allen now?” asks Salon‘s Andrew O’Hehir. More from David Edelstein (Vulture), Ben Kenigsberg (AV Club, C+), Glenn Kenny (RogerEbert.com, 2.5/4), Ray Pride (Newcity Film), Tasha Robinson (Dissolve, 3.5/5), David Robson and Michael Fox (EatDrinkFilms), Lisa Rosman (Word and Film), David Sims (Wire) and Jim Tudor (Twitch).
Updates, 8/2: “Only when it comes to l’amour fou, it seems, will Allen make any concession to the pull of the irrational,” writes Variety‘s Justin Chang. “In a world without God, only love—reckless, passionate and age-blind—gives us cause to indulge what the heart wants, regardless of what the mind knows. Any other attempt to find grace, transcendence or eternal assurance will ultimately prove empty and meaningless. To be similarly blunt: This is not a worldview that I find useful, thoughtful or, in any sense, truthful…. Perhaps the most dispiriting thing about Magic in the Moonlight is the way Allen seems to reach these pessimistic conclusions as if he were doing so for the first time.”