Although there are still delights to be found, a modern Woody Allen movie seems to have the same template. The writer-director will include some lovely jazz on the soundtrack, he'll use the movie to explore one main topic, with love always either helping or clouding the issue, and an assorted cast of great names will have some fun in some picturesque European locations (although New York is also an acceptable setting). I'm not saying that every film he has made over the past couple of decades is EXACTLY the same (Blue Jasmine happened to take place in San Francisco, for example). I'm just saying that he's almost become a genre unto himself. Gone are the days when his movies were either funny or serious, gone are the more interesting/fun ideas (such as those explored in Zelig and Sleeper), and gone is the sharpness. It can appear, at times, as if Allen is giving people an impression of an Allen movie. Allen-lite, if you like.
Colin Firth plays Wei Ling Soo, a master stage magician who can also remove the clothing and make-up to move around more inconspicuously as . . . . . . . Stanley. Stanley is famous for his cynicism and ability to disprove psychic phenomena, which is why his friend (Howard Burkan, played by Simon McBurney) enlists his aid when he thinks that he has met a young woman (Emma Stone) who has a real gift. So begins a battle of wits, with Stanley soon coming around to the fact that he may actually have met someone with a very real, very astonishing, psychic ability. He may not even notice the fact that love is in the air, so intent is he on trying to expose the girl for the fake that he assumes her to be.
Firth and Stone are both delightful here, although neither are at their very best. The fault doesn't lie with them, but rather with Allen's sadly flat script. Early scenes have a few great lines scattered throughout them, Firth is much more acerbic in the guise of Wei Ling Soo than he is as Stanley, and then it starts a gentle slide downhill from there. All is not lost, however, thanks to some solid support from Eileen Atkins, Jacki Weaver, Marcia Gay Harden and Hamish Linklater. And those leads.
The main theme being looked at here is whether or not lying is good, especially when it can make people so much happier. It's not a bad subject for Allen to explore, it's just a shame that he does so in a way that feels too lightweight for even just one feature. This leads to many scenes in which people just talk about their own views of the universe, and the possibility of spirits and magic, or Firth and Stone dance around one another, figuratively speaking. The latter scenes are far more enjoyable than the former.
You can always tell when a movie is being made by Allen about something that he feels passionate about. There's a story that he feels compelled to tell. With the lacklustre approach he takes here, it's clear that this story could have been pushed aside for something better. It's light and frothy, nothing more and nothing less. Worth a watch, especially if you're a fan of the director and cast, but not necessarily one that you'll be revisiting a few years down the line.