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August 8, 2014

Movie review: Woody enchants with 'Magic in the Moonlight'

An enchanting, breezy bonbon, "Magic in the Moonlight" is aided by the considerable charms of its co-stars, Colin Firth and Emma Stone.

Writer-director Woody Allen has returned to the Jazz Age for a lighthearted romantic comedy, his 44th feature film. While it doesn't sustain the dizzying heights of 2011's "Midnight in Paris," Oscar winner for Best Original Screenplay, this clever gambit benefits from its heavenly French countryside setting and luxurious 1920s fashions.

Firth plays against type as Stanley, an arrogant sour-puss hired to expose Stone as a fake mystic. She's Sophie, a darling girl of meager means, who ingratiates herself as a clairvoyant into an upper-crust Pittsburgh family. They spend the summer of 1928 on the exquisite Cote d'Azur.

The family is so enthralled by her uncanny abilities that the matriarch (Jacki Weaver), a wealthy widow of an industrial magnate, can't make a decision without Sophie's input, and her eligible bachelor son (Hamish Linklater) lavishes her with gifts and a marriage proposal.

Stanley's friend Howard (Simon McBurney) enlists his old magician pal to uncover the possible swindle, but Stanley winds up smitten instead. His heart is at odds with his headstrong personality.

Naturally, insults are hurled, they get caught in the rain, they dance in the moonlight during a swanky soiree, and complications ensue. Shades of "Pygmalion" are obvious.

Performances

The elegant Firth is always a class act on screen, and appears to be having a great deal of fun as an insufferable snob blindsided by love. He looks dapper in formal wear and deftly delivers an educated man's nimble dialogue.

Radiant in period fashions, Stone shows she is capable of holding her own with the effortless Brits.

Eileen Atkins does a lovely turn as Stanley's Aunt Vanessa, who lives well in Provence.

What Works

When wit and whimsy collide, you get sparks, but the film isn't consistent -- getting bogged down in extremely chatty exposition, long-winded at times, and less action.

The luscious visual feast that is the French coast along the Meditteranean Sea is so pleasing to watch that the plot seems immaterial, though. Shot in Technicolor and 35-mm, the cinematography is swoon-worthy (and so is Firth, dashing in a tuxedo). It's easy to get swept away by the opulence, and you can overlook some of the film's imperfections.

A jazzy score, Allen's trademark, also features the music of Jerome Kern, Rodgers and Hammerstein, and Cole Porter. That is as good as it gets, providing notes for blue waters, sunny chateaus and lush gardens.

What Doesn't Work: The elements of a dandy screwball comedy are here, they just don't all come together. So this is good, not great, Woody Allen. For some, that's good enough. For others, they want more.

3 stars out of 4

Director: Woody Allen

Starring: Colin Firth, Emma Stone, Jacki Weaver, Hamish Linklater, Marcia Gay Harden, Eileen Atkins

Rated: PG-13 for a brief suggestive comment and smoking throughout

Length: 1:37

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