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Magic In The Moonlight **1/2

Is it worth $10? Yes

When Woody Allen doesn’t star in a film he directs there’s often a character who takes on the paranoid, cynical worldview Allen’s screen persona often features. In the funny but predictable “Magic in the Moonlight” that character is Stanley, a world-renowned magician who’s also an unctuous grump. To him the world is a forum for disappointment in which little goes right and what does is bound to be ruined, somehow.

Stanley (Colin Firth) is arrogant, pessimistic, smarmy, obnoxious and sarcastic. He’s the guy you want nearby when the world is treating you unfairly, because he’ll happily chime in with all the things that are wrong with life. It’s not that he doesn’t believe in happiness so much as he doesn’t think it’s possible, and he certainly doesn’t think spirituality should make anyone feel better. “There’s of course no spirit world,” Stanley insists.

Sophie (Emma Stone) is an American psychic in the south of France. She’s enchanted a wealthy family by foretelling the future and communicating with the dead, a salient factor for the beloved matriarch (Jacki Weaver) to connect with her deceased husband. Sophie, who travels with her mother/manager (Marcia Gay Harden), has also swayed the young, super wealthy and eager to please family heir Brice (Hamish Linklater) to fall in love with her.

To confirm Sophie is not a fraud the family brings in Stanley’s magician friend/colleague Howard (Simon McBurney), who agrees she’s legit. Stumped, Howard turns to the “expert” Stanley to sleuth her out, but as Stanley and Sophie spend time together his perspective begins to change.

Anyone familiar with how Allen handles the supernatural (“The Curse of the Jade Scorpion,” 2001) will see the “twists” coming early on, and it’s an insult to ask the audience to believe the love story. It’s one thing for Firth to be 53 and Stone to be 25; it’s yet another for them to have zero sexual chemistry and play characters who are completely different and unfit for one another. Yes they fill voids in the other’s life, but believing they potentially belong together is a big stretch.

Thankfully much of “Magic In The Moonlight” doesn’t rely on us investing in their love, instead opting for us to delight in Firth’s offbeat yet spot-on performance. From the opening sequence to the end Firth has a clear idea of Stanley’s wayward charms and knows exactly how to embody them. The role isn’t going to earn Firth an Oscar (he already has one, for “The King’s Speech”), but it does remind us how good he is at comedy. As for Stone, we know she’s funny but her character is underplayed: Sophie needs a bit more spunk and style to truly make us (and Stanley) smitten.

“Magic In The Moonlight” is heavy with themes: Frauds revealed as liars (a symbolic gesture to Allen’s adopted daughter, Dylan Farrow, and Farrow’s sexual molestation accusations against Allen?), the irrationality of love, and the desire to know complete truths (or is it better to lie to ourselves about certain things?). These aspects, however, lie below the core elements of the trite story, which never feels fresh or fun. But time and again as you’re sitting there, bored, Firth hits you with a funny one-liner and you snap back into attention. It doesn’t last long, but it keeps things interesting.

Did you know?

Woody Allen has earned seven Academy Award nominations for Best Director, tying him for third all time with Fred Zinnemann, Steven Spielberg and David Lean. Only Billy Wilder (8), Martin Scorsese (8), and William Wyler (12) have more directing nominations.

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