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MOVIE REVIEW: Woody Allen phones in 'Magic in the Moonlight'

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Emma Stone stars as Sophie and Colin Firth stars as Stanley in Woody Allen’s “Magic in the Moonlight.” (Special Photo: Sony Classics)

Magic in the Moonlight

(PG-13)

2 1/2 out of 4 stars

It’s rare when the best thing you can say about a new Woody Allen film is the way it looks. Set and shot in the French countryside, every frame of the movie is awash in the kind of colors that would right at home in any painting by Monet, Renoir, Degas or Cezanne. Taking full advantage of the Roaring ’20s time frame, Allen and costume designer Sonia Grande adorn the cast with the kind of duds you’d find in any one of the half-dozen versions of “The Great Gatsby.”

Unfortunately, Allen’s screenplay all too often is as lightweight as any of those “Gatsby” productions as well. If this was anyone else’s movie, it would likely be perceived as very good but because it was penned by Allen — a three-time Oscar-winning screenwriter — it feels kind of phoned in.

It opens in Germany with what looks like a Chinese man on stage performing a series of elaborate sleight of hand magic tricks. He’s good but moves with a gait that tells us he’s done it thousands of times before and, in all likelihood, would rather be doing something else. After the show ends, he removes his pancake make-up and reveals he’s not at all Asian but rather an irascible Brit named Stanley, played with pithy disdain throughout by Colin Firth.

In addition to being a consummate showman, Stanley is also considered by his few close associates to be able to spot even the most convincing con artist. When Stanley’s oldest chum Howard (Simon McBurney) tells him about one such trickster working a filthy rich family in France, Stanley perks up like a bulldog sniffing raw meat.

When the pair arrive at the opulent estate where said scamster in now residing, Stanley is quite sure she’s a fake but can’t quite nail down her modus operandi. A redhead with pale alabaster skin, the Midwest-born Sophie Baker (Emma Stone) doesn’t immediately acknowledge why Stanley is there and responds to his barbed volleys and thinly-cloaked insults with rose-in-fist retorts that throw him off. If she is indeed a poser, Sophie hides it well and is no shrinking violet. This impresses Stanley to no end and only increases his determination to find a chink in Sophie’s seemingly impenetrable armor.

As he usually does, Allen surrounds his two leads with a handful of crack supporting characters that serve a particular task and are given relatively limited screen time. In this case, they are Marcia Gay Harden as Sophie’s never-far-away mother, Jacki Weaver as the mark — a widow wanting to communicate with her dead husband — and her beyond-dim son (Hamish Linklater) who is head-over-heels in love with Sophie.

It’s surprising and more than a tad disappointing that an Allen movie about possible crime and prickly romance is so…safe and one-note. Unlike his other crime-based films — which balance character and plot development equally, “MITM” is almost all of the former and very little of the latter; not ideal for a mystery.

The film also finds Allen returning — after a long absence — to what many consider to be his kind of creepy romantic pairing of older men with much younger women less than half their age. This usually occurred when Allen himself played the leading man and, to be blunt, it’s much easier to believe a girl like Sophie could be attracted to a man in possession of more traditional leading man good looks like Firth and have it not be completely off-putting. Still, it provides easy ammunition to Allen’s detractors who (understandably) will never forget he is now married to a woman that used to be his step-daughter and is young enough to be his grandchild.

Beginning in 2005 with “Match Point,” Allen has set and filmed most of his movies in Europe, with pretty much the same success-to-failure ratio as the rest of his nearly 50 films. For every brilliant movie Allen makes, he follows it with one, sometimes two that are merely average. Allen is a guy who seems to have never thrown away a single story idea and is his own worst enemy. When you make a movie a year over the space of a half-century, your slugging percentage is going to be low. If Allen cut his output by half he would almost certainly double the quality. (Sony Classics)