As its title blithely hints, enchantments abound in Woody Allen's charming but flawed comedy "Magic in the Moonlight."
The film brims throughout with champagne dialogue that bubbles with the cleverness of Oscar Wilde, appealing performances from its players and that alluring, sigh-inducing French Riviera scenery.
But -- and this is not one of those buts that's casually cast aside -- Allen's frothy comedy set in the 1920s loses its fizzle because of a key problem in its foundation: an improbable, no, completely unbelievable romance between polar-opposite characters -- the young and captivating American clairvoyant (Emma Stone) and the uptight, middle-aged magician (Colin Firth) whose pomposity could send up a hot-air balloon.
The first part of "Moonlight," which focuses on an irritable Stanley Crawford (Firth) trying to expose the radiant Sophie Baker (Stone) as a fraud, is classic witty Allen. One witty line of dialogue is followed by another and yet another. The film doesn't go flat until Stanley starts to fall for doe-eyed Sophie. It's hard to buy this May-December pairing, and the romance feels strained and unconvincing. There is zilch chemistry between these two.
The plot has a bit of a been-there, seen-that feel, as the fussy Stanley, whose celebrated stage persona is Wei Ling Soo, wants to expose Sophie as a huckster. Sophie, with her mom (Marcia Gay Harden) anchored near her side, has become the spiritual adviser of sorts for the sinfully wealthy Catledge clan at their tony estate along the Cote d'Azur. We should all be so lucky as to be a mere twig on that family tree.
Sophie convinces others about her craft and casts quite a bewitching spell on Brice Catledge (Hamish Linklater), the handsome son who's so besotted he professes his endearing love in song. Brice's mom, Grace (an underused Jacki Weaver), falls for Sophie in another way, clinging to her ability to summon up her dead husband's spirit. Other more reasoned members in the family are circumspect. All of this sets into play a jaunt that takes jabs at how easy it is to find ourselves hemmed in by logic.
Meanwhile, though Allen deftly brushes the screen with the postcard-perfect scenery of the seductive Cote d'Azur, his plotting sometimes slips into vacation mode. There are points in "Magic in the Moonlight" when characters switch attitudes and intentions too glibly simply to usher the story along.
Regardless, Firth is smashing as the logic-driven killjoy Crawford. It's the 1920s, and he's a man of reason, an intellectual who can't fathom that real magic exists, and who holds little faith in, well, faith. At the behest of fellow magician Howard Burkan (Simon McBurney), he arrives with his suitcase full of skepticism to the doorsteps of the posh Catledge estate.
His visit is a twofold pleasure: to expose Sophie as a fraud and to spend time with his wise Aunt Vanessa (a delightful Eileen Atkins), a character you'd love to spend time sipping tea with some restful afternoon, too.
Firth's performance drives this film, and he's a pip in the role, as is the charming Stone, who is always fetching. Separately, they are a joy to behold. Together, not so much.
In the overall Allen pantheon, "Magic in the Moonlight" falls somewhere in the middle. There is enough to recommend it. But romantic comedy needs a convincing romance. "Magic in the Moonlight" fails to pull that rabbit out of its hat.
'Magic in the Moonlight'
* * ½
Rating: PG-13 (brief suggestive comment, and smoking throughout)
Cast: Colin Firth, Emma Stone, Eileen Atkins, Simon McBurney, Jacki Weaver, Marcia Gay Harden
Director and writer: Woody Allen
Running time: 1 hour,