Film Review: Magic in the Moonlight

Slight Woody Allen period romance is enlivened by appealing leads Colin Firth and Emma Stone.

Once the quintessential New York filmmaker, Woody Allen has ventured far from Manhattan in recent years, with pictures set in England, Spain, Italy and France. The latter locale inspired his biggest box-office success, 2011’s Midnight in Paris, and he tries to recapture that period glow with Magic in the Moonlight, set in 1928 on the French Riviera. The gifted cinematographer Darius Khondji is again on hand to supply lush visuals, and Sonia Grande returns with her persuasively handsome ’20s costuming. If Allen’s script is slighter and less, well, magical, this time out, his newest lark does have two vital additions to recommend it: Colin Firth and Emma Stone.

Both actors are new to the Allen roster, but it’s hard to imagine anyone better suited for the lead roles he’s created. Firth begins the film in robust style in his character’s professional guise as Wei Ling Soo, a famed Chinese magician who’s actually dyspeptic Englishman Stanley Crawford. Stanley’s nonstop post-performance rant at his onstage assistant and other backstage lackeys is a high point before the film settles into the main plot driver, as his friend Howard Burkan (Simon McBurney) persuades him to journey to the Cote d’Azur estate of the Catledge family, who are in thrall to a young American clairvoyant named Sophie Baker (Stone).

A longtime foe of would-be spiritualists, Stanley poses as a businessman friend of Howard’s, but the main business at hand is exposing the Catledges’ houseguest Sophie as a fraud. Sophie immediately senses something “Oriental” about Stanley, just the first in a remarkable series of psychic feats that make the skeptic begin to question his rigid stance on unexplained phenomena. Stanley and Howard are both awestruck when a séance conducted by Sophie appears to summon the spirit of the late husband of credulous Catledge matriarch Rose (Jacki Weaver). And when Sophie meets Stanley’s Aunt Vanessa (Eileen Atkins) for the first time, he is astonished when she divines a secret from her long-ago past.

Stanley’s fascination with Sophie blossoms into romantic feelings when the two are caught in a violent thunderstorm and take shelter in the historic Nice Observatory; it’s only a minor complication that Sophie is being courted by Rose’s goofy son Brice (Hamish Linklater), whose idea of seduction consists of strumming his ukulele and warbling corny tunes.

Is Sophie the real thing? Has the purely rational Stanley been transformed? Allen saves a few twists for the final act, but he isn’t in a hurry to get there. The middle section of the film sags as Stanley tries to resist his attraction to this young woman who threatens to upend his entire nonbelief system. Luckily for Allen, the general inertia of his narrative is enlivened by the chemistry of his leads: Firth, who remains engaging despite the disagreeableness and egotism of the character he’s playing, and Stone, whose feistiness and charm make her a formidable match for her considerably older co-star.

Firth and Stone truly carry the film, since Weaver, Linklater and especially Marcia Gay Harden as Sophie’s mother are barely given characters to play. (British theatre veterans Atkins and McBurney fare better with somewhat more ample roles.)

With Allen’s prolific annual output, you never know whether you’re getting a trifle or something more substantial like Blue Jasmine or Match Point. Magic in the Moonlight lands squarely in the “trifle” column, but at least it has two appealing stars and lovely production values that occasionally create the illusion you’re watching a film to remember.

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