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'Magic in the Moonlight' is an amusing trifle of a film

MoviesColumnReviewsEntertainmentColin FirthWoody AllenEmma Stone
Romance and magic: Woody Allen's done it better before, but ...
This time around, Woody Allen tries to conjure up magic in the south of France
'Magic in the Moonlight' has Colin Firth, Emma Stone and Woody Allen. What could go wrong?

In "Magic in the Moonlight," an amusing trifle and sugary truffle of a film, Woody Allen dallies with some of his favorite themes — true romance, magicians and spirituality — and favorite tropes — beautiful women and scenery.

The movie stars Colin Firth as a master magician out to unmask Emma Stone's mentalist, a young tease playing the chateau circuit along the French Riviera in the summer of '28. The grander scheme in "Magic," though, is mortality. Via Firth's Stanley Crawford, a supercilious Brit known to the world as Wei Ling Soo — famous Chinese conjurer, great debunker of psychic mediums — the film ponders the possibility of an afterlife.

"Magic's" goal is to make a believer out of a nonbeliever and to bring the insufferably smug Stanley down a peg or two. The tension hangs on whether or not it can. What is easiest to believe is that there is a good deal of Allen embedded in Stanley's sanctimonious skepticism and perhaps even more of the filmmaker's hope that the irrepressible optimism of Sophie Baker (Stone) is right.

Despite its mucking around in mortality, "Magic" is by no means dark — how could it be, between the sparkling blue of the Mediterranean hugging the Cote d'Azur and Stone's incandescent blue eyes? Nothing like the bitterly and beautifully imploding life Allen dissected so unsparingly in last year's "Blue Jasmine." "Magic" goes at the idea of what is beyond the bitter end, a bit like "Annie Hall" played at tennis — batting at it lightly, fancifully, at times ridiculously, but not as cleverly.

In fact, "Magic" at times seems more an unrealized idea than a fully formed movie. Perhaps, chalk it up to one of those off years for a filmmaker who keeps himself on a production line pace — 49 pictures in 48 years and another in production now.

"Magic" begins on a Berlin stage in front of a packed house with the high theatrics of Wei Ling Soo — flowing red changshan, head-shaved except for a long black pigtail, kohl-slanted eyes — executing his famous disappearing elephant trick.

As he heads to his dressing room hurling insults like knives about the ineptitude of the stage manager, he is met by a longtime friend and colleague in the magic trade, Howard Burkan (Simon McBurney). It seems that Burkan has tried and failed to unmask a particularly bedeviling medium currently preying on the Catledges, a wealthy American family now living in the south of France.

Matriarch Grace (Jacki Weaver) is newly widowed, her son Brice (Hamish Linklater) is newly smitten with Sophie, and daughter Caroline (Erica Leerhsen) and son-in-law George (Jeremy Shamos), a psychiatrist, are newly suspicious.

Won't Stanley please help out these deluded folks? As Burkan suspects, it's an offer that Stanley's seriously inflated ego can't refuse.

And so begins a very lovely but loosely imagined lark.

The summery scene Allen's created is luminous, shimmering in its period detail, from the roadster Firth motors along in to the vintage wear costume designer Sonia Grande searched the world for. Director of photography Darius Khondji bathes it all in lovely warm tones, but Stone he makes the most luminous of all. It's as if the sun were always shining on Sophie, when in fact it's the kind of lighting that is magical, whether the sun, the moon or a magnificent crew is responsible.

The actress, of course, brings her own special glow. There is true movie-star quality in every part she plays, no matter how slight the role — the slightness of Sophie proves it.

Firth is a good sparring partner, the actor never more likably dislikable. To Stanley, he brings all the tartness of his very proper barrister in "Bridget Jones's Diary," then adds a big dollop of the arrogance of his dashing, dismissive Mr. Darcy from the British miniseries "Pride and Prejudice."

But Darcy was nearly two decades ago, and "Bridget Jones" is edging toward 14. The heartthrob factor that made Firth so irresistible in those earlier works is harder to conjure up now, particularly when Sophie's such a sweet young thing. At least the flirting is all rather chaste and second chair. The medium is the message here.

That Sophie finds Stanley intriguing, however, is easy to buy. He's worldly, well-educated and impossible in a way that often interests smart younger women. While Sophie roils Stanley's emotions, his Aunt Vanessa is responsible for keeping his mind in a churn. A delightful Eileen Atkins is excellent at it. She lives in her own chateau not far from the Catledges, she loves Stanley and is soon enchanted by Sophie.

Between Aunt Vanessa's subtle prodding at rational thinking and Sophie's increasingly impressive, un-debunkable "impressions," the ones that tell a person something about their life that she could not have known, a lot is proffered about belief — in love as well as an existence beyond this mortal realm.

As to Allen, the filmmaker has done froth far better and funnier. "Midnight in Paris" and "The Purple Rose of Cairo" come to mind. The séances are great fun, and the cast is charmingly eclectic. But as to whether "Moonlight" is magical — it is, but ever, ever so slightly.

Twitter: @BetsySharkey

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'Magic in the Moonlight'

MPAA rating: PG-13 for a brief suggestive comment, and smoking throughout

Running time: 1 hour, 38 minutes

Playing: At ArcLight, Hollywood and Sherman Oaks; Landmark Theatre, West Los Angeles

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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MoviesColumnReviewsEntertainmentColin FirthWoody AllenEmma Stone
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