In the poem “Marmion,” Sir Walter Scott opined, “Oh, what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive.” Well, Woody Allen’s latest is all about deception. Englishman Stanley (Colin Firth), during a live stage presentation in Germany in Berlin (1928), poses as Wei Ling Soo, an Asian practitioner of the mystic arts, performing elaborate tricks and feats to amaze audiences who have paid top dollar for such diversions. But once the show is over, the second “act” begins, because Stanley is also a world-renowned debunker of psychic fraud, exposing any and all who would use sleight of hand and tricks of the trade to swindle, con and deceive for cheap gain.
He’s approached by Howard Burkan (Simon McBurney), a colleague and quite possibly his only friend, and enticed to expose a new psychic medium, Sophie (Emma Stone), on her way to bilking a naïve young heir (Hamish Linklater) and his mother (Jacki Weaver) of their fortune. Stanley “becomes” the eternal skeptic, a non-believer in either science or faith, until Sophie “proves” herself to be more than he bargained for. It is quite plain to see what Allen is up to here. The film is a step down from the last few releases, the highlights being Blue Jasmine, Midnight in Paris and Vicky Cristina Barcelona. Magic certainly aims high, in terms of the theme and the seeming literary allusions, but it debunks itself along the way. (PG-13) Grade: C+