Romance blooms under the sun and the stars in Woody Allen’s “Magic in the Moonlight,” a high-spirited bauble that goes down easy thanks to fleet comic pacing, a surfeit of ravishing Cote d’Azur vistas and the genuinely reactive chemistry of stars Colin Firth and Emma Stone. A welcome balm for the blockbuster-addled soul, Allen’s 44th feature finds the director back in the 1920s Gallic mood of 2011’s “Midnight in Paris,” with the star-crossed lovers this time held apart not by time but rather by philosophical inclinations. While the result may not quite equal “Midnight’”s box office bonanza, expect “Magic” to handily corner the upscale adult demo for the remainder of summer, continuing the Woodman’s late-career hot streak.
A childhood magic buff and amateur magician, Allen has incorporated hypnotists, stage illusionists and touches of the supernatural into many films including “Alice,” “The Curse of the Jade Scorpion” and “Scoop,” the last of which Allen himself has aptly referred to as “a trivial little Kleenex of a film.” By that measure, Allen’s latest is more of a monogrammed silk handkerchief, with Firth smoothly stepping into the role of Stanley Crawford, a celebrated London prestidigitator who performs in yellowface under the stage name Wei Ling-soo and maintains a healthy sideline in debunking sham mystics of all sorts, “from the seance table to the Vatican and beyond.”
A nod to the 19th-century American magician William Ellsworth Robinson (who performed as the Chinese Chung Ling-soo), it’s a tailor-made part for Firth’s dyspeptic charisma, and reps one of the few times Allen has successfully cast an onscreen surrogate who doesn’t slavishly mimic his own line readings and mannerisms. (Firth is closer here to the Rex Harrison of “My Fair Lady,” a likeness Allen acknowledges in an homage to that film’s famous final shot.)
The movie opens in 1928, with Stanley being approached backstage by friend and fellow illusionist Howard (Simon McBurney), who makes him an offer he can’t refuse. In the south of France, a wealthy Pittsburgh industrial family has fallen under the spell of a certain Sophie Baker (Stone), a young American woman passing herself off as a clairvoyant. Son Brice (Hamish Linklater) is so smitten he’s all but signed the marriage contract, while Howard — despite his best efforts — has been unable to unmask the interloper as a fraud. So into the breach Stanley goes, presenting himself as a businessman named Taplinger, only to find himself quickly seduced — less by Sophie’s “psychic vibrations” than by her moony, freckle-faced charms.
He’s not the only one: Allen and his “Midnight” d.p. Darius Khondji have lit Stone so radiantly that she seems almost translucent, the way Scarlett Johansson appeared in the early scenes of “Match Point.” But it’s Stone’s wonderful comic presence that shines brightest. Casting her hands before her as she communes with the spirit world and sounding astonished by the most mundane of revelations, her Sophie is the sort of slightly aloof dingbat original Shelley Duvall or Julie Hagerty used to play, and the trick of Stone’s performance is that we, like Stanley, can’t quite sort out whether she’s a phony or the real deal — at least for a while.
In truth, Allen doesn’t seem terribly concerned about maintaining a convincing air of mystery here, and even the least attentive of viewers may find themselves one or two steps ahead of Stanley’s sleuthing. What interests Allen more is the ideological tug of war that erupts in Firth’s erstwhile man of reason, whom one character describes as “a perfect depressive with everything sublimated into his art.” Maybe, just maybe, “Magic in the Moonlight” suggests, a little self-delusion is necessary in order to make life bearable. And while no one would ever mistake Allen for a believer, “Magic” is surely the first of his movies to feature a long (and mostly sincere) scene in which a character contemplates the power of prayer.
Whenever Firth and Stone are onscreen together, the movie sings; the rest of the time it’s never less than a breezy divertissement. As usual, Allen has filled out the cast with a who’s-who of gifted character actors, some of whom have actual roles, while others seem like onlookers at a garden party. The sly Eileen Atkins fares best as Stanley’s crafty aunt in Provence, while Marcia Gay Harden gets a few choice bits as Sophie’s bullish stage mother. Improbably cast as a Pennsylvania matriarch for the second time in as many years (after “Silver Linings Playbook”), ’70s Aussie screen icon Jacki Weaver rounds out the ensemble as Linklater’s equally bewitched mom.
France does seem to bring out the best in Allen, who, working with much of his “Midnight” crew, has delivered one of his most beautifully made films. Lensing in widescreen 35mm, Allen and Khondji favor elegantly choreographed traveling master shots bathed in natural light (shooting took place up and down the Riviera, including Cap d’Antibes, Mouans-Sartoux, Juan-les-Pins and Nice), while production designer Anne Seibel fosters an effortless period air and costume designer Sonia Grande dresses Stone in a parade of white lace, floral hats and one especially va-va-voom red-and-white sailor’s outfit.
The typically rich sourced soundtrack here includes snatches of Stravinsky, Ravel and Beethoven alongside the usual American songbook standards (Cole Porter, Rodgers & Hart, et al.). Lauded German cabaret singer Ute Lemper appears briefly as a period version of herself, crooning Mischa Spoliansky and Marcellus Schiffer’s “It’s All a Swindle,” which could easily have served as an alternate title for Allen’s film.