Woody Allen explores the mysteries of illusion and love in "Magic in the Moonlight," a period romantic comedy inspired by 1920s clairvoyants who were debunked by leading magicians of the day.
The Oscar-winning director has long been fascinated by magic, a recurrent theme in his films. In "Magic in the Moonlight," which opens in US theaters on Friday, reality and illusion collide on the Cote d'Azur in the Roaring Twenties, when spiritualism and seances were in vogue.
The "Annie Hall" director, now 78, said the fraudulent spiritualists exposed by Houdini and other magicians "led me to the idea."
"I'm all for illusion," he added. "I set films very often in the past because I can create the illusion more tantalizingly."
Like "Midnight in Paris," Allen's most successful film with global earnings of more than $151 million, "Magic in the Moonlight" travels back to 1920s France. It is a world of blue skies, vintage cars and costumes, sumptuous villas and an international cast headed by Briton Colin Firth.
The best-actor Oscar winner for "The King's Speech" plays Stanley Crawford, an arrogant, master illusionist who performs as Wei Ling Soo, complete with elaborate Chinese costume and makeup.
When his friend and fellow magician Howard, played by British actor Simon McBurney ("Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy"), enlists Stanley's help to debunk a young American clairvoyant, he cannot resist the challenge.
"He is very committed to his craft, very resentful of anybody who tries to appropriate that as something spiritually authentic," said Firth. "There is something of the Henry Higgins in him, the man who considers himself at the top of his field and is dismissive of amateurs. And he is a rampant snob."
Emma Stone ("The Help") is Sophie, a beguiling woman who claims to be able to communicate with the other side and earns a living through her gift. Grace, a wealthy widow played by Australian actress Jacki Weaver ("Silver Linings Playbook") and her son Brice (Hamish Linklater) are convinced of her power.
Stanley starts out as a skeptic and becomes a firm believer in Sophie's talents, but unexpected twists shake his world.
"He wants nothing more than to find out there is more to life," Allen said, "and that there are things unknown to us that are magical and amazing, and we don't have all the answers."
Critics are divided about whether Allen's latest effort will measure up to the success of "Midnight in Paris" and "Blue Jasmine."
The trade journal Variety described it 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 Firth and Stone.
But the Hollywood Reporter said it will be judged as a minor film in Allen's prolific output.
"'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," it said.