Emma Stone and Colin Firth are two actors who bring an amusing vitality to a movie, especially when they’re engaged in quick-witted sparring. So seeing them try to outmaneuver each other in “Magic in the Moonlight” — Woody Allen’s latest period romantic comedy — is delightful.
Firth once again plays a charming twerp. He’s positively Darcy-esque as the confoundingly appealing Stanley, an abrasive Brit who most people know as Wei Ling Soo. The renowned magician can make an elephant disappear and obscure his true identity under loads of eye makeup, a kimono and a faux Fu Manchu mustache. Offensive? Yes, but keep in mind that the year is 1928.
After a performance in Berlin, Stanley is visited by an old friend, Howard (Simon McBurney), who needs a favor. Howard is friends with a wealthy family living in the South of France, and it appears the matriarch is being swindled by a con artist who claims to be a spiritual medium. But Howard — who is also a magician — can’t figure out how she’s levitating candles and unloading trivia about the family that no one else knows.
Stanley, who fancies himself the greatest of debunkers, can hardly contain his excitement as he sets off for France to expose Kalamazoo native Sophie Baker (Stone) and her stage mother (Marcia Gay Harden). The only problem is that Sophie is so darn adorable, with her winning smile and upbeat attitude, that no one wants to doubt her. The heir to the family’s fortune, Brice (Hamish Linklater), even wants to marry her, and he lets her know by constantly, painfully serenading her with his ukulele.
Watching the unruffled Sophie spar with Stanley is great fun. He doesn’t believe in God, much less a spirit world, and he has no intention of sugarcoating his feelings. But he also can’t hide his surprise at how much Sophie knows about him and his family. Could she be the real thing?
The biggest problem with “Magic in the Moonlight” is its origins. If it were made by any other director, it would be heralded as a first-rate romantic comedy. But anyone who has seen a couple Woody Allen films will recognize aspects of his other movies, from the depressive protagonist and the mysticism, to the European vacation spot setting and the existentialism. Let’s hope the auteur is as good at recycling his plastic bottles as he is at reusing plot points.
The most blatant of the revisited motifs is the May-December romance. There’s a nearly 30-year age difference between Firth and Stone, and while both characters are alluring in their own ways, the discrepancy can be distracting. Granted, the gap isn’t as egregious as some of Allen’s other movies (there are four decades separating Larry David and Evan Rachel Wood, stars of “Whatever Works”), but let’s just say that Firth seems like a guy who looks good for his age — until he’s next to a woman so impeccably youthful, she’s the face of Revlon. That Sophie appears to be more taken with Stanley than he is with her practically begs for an eye roll.
If you can overcome that obstacle, “Magic” has many pleasures: good dialogue, a jazzy score, an element of mystery and an idyllic, summery setting. It’s also beautifully shot using what appears to be a lot of natural light. You can practically feel the heat of the sun emanating from the screen. It may not be wholly original or without its flaws, but “Magic in the Moonlight” offers a pleasant vacation from reality, and what more could you want from a summer movie?
★ ★ ½
PG-13. At area theaters. Contains a brief suggestive comment and smoking throughout. 98 minutes.