By Ed Symkus
More Content Now

Woody Allen has often spoken about his drawer full of movie ideas, some of them hastily written down, that he visits now and then when the prolific director feels that it’s time to write and direct another one. Though many of his most ardent fans were saying that his best days are behind him, that his last great film was “Husbands and Wives” two decades ago, it’s always such a great surprise when something the caliber of last year’s resoundingly acclaimed “Blue Jasmine” pops up. (Personal note: I’d also put 1999’s “Sweet and Lowdown” right up there with the strong stuff.)

And though “Magic in the Moonlight” mostly pales next to “Blue Jasmine” – except for Colin Firth’s terrific performance – I can still comfortably recommend it as good, if not great, Woody Allen.

It’s a period piece about the timeless subject of fraud. In 1928 Berlin, a Chinese magician named Wei Ling Soo astonishes audiences with his impossible stage illusions. Of course, all magicians are committing fraud, but it’s the sort of deception that audiences enjoy. Wei Ling Soo takes it a step further, in that he’s actually a Brit named Stanley (Colin Firth) posing, in heavy costuming and makeup, as a Chinese magician. When his magician pal Howard Burkan (Simon McBurney) asks him for a favor – to prove that an American woman claiming to be a psychic is a total fake – he agrees to take on the task, gallantly but tiredly saying, “OK, I’ll expose yet another fraudulent spiritualist.”

But Sophie (Emma Stone) who travels the world under the guidance of her no-nonsense show biz mom (Marcia Gay Harden), is pretty darn good at what she does. When Stanley, who doesn’t reveal his true identity as a prestidigitator, attends a séance at the lavish home where the widowed Grace (Jacki Weaver) – accompanied by her dimwit, ukulele-strumming son Brice (Hamish Linklater) – wants to speak with her dead husband Harry, Stanley is impressed that Sophie seems to be able to know absolutely unknowable things. Sophie calls what she does “miracles.” Stanley admits that they’re “bewildering feats, but not possible.”

He also believes that Grace and Brice are perfect marks, and can see that Brice is smitten with Sophie. But though he can’t figure out how she does what she does, he remains a non-believer because, he says, “I’m rational.”

What I blissfully had trouble believing is that Emma Stone (not one of my favorites) manages to keep right up with the always excellent Firth in the acting department. Firth shows the most acting range, starting out as a self-important braggart, endowing his character with lots of smirking and eye rolling, and slowly coming around to fall under the spell of the captivating Sophie. But Stone pulls off the “how can you not believe me” ploy quite well, and the veteran British actress Eileen Atkins is spot-on as Stanley’s Aunt Vanessa. The only two problems are due to how little Marcia Gay Harden and Jacki Weaver are given to do.

Some of the best parts occur when Allen’s script puts a few of the characters through some big-time emotional changes. But when the film comes to its odd, too-fast, inauthentically happy ending, you feel a bit cheated that things weren’t thought out a little more, that it ends not with an out-of-the blue jolt but with a fairly satisfying, smile-inducing conclusion.

Yet even though there’s a feeling that this is Woody Allen-lite, one area he never disappoints in is his love of sharing his favorite music, and knowing just where to insert it. In the case of “Magic in the Moonlight,” the soundtrack manages to jump from Beethoven to Beiderbecke, with plenty more variety in between. Even if you’re not thinking about the story when it’s over, there’s a good chance you’ll be humming some of the tunes.

Ed Symkus covers movies for More Content Now.

Written and directed by Woody Allen
With Colin Firth, Emma Stone, Jacki Weaver, Simon McBurney, Hamish Linklater, Eileen Atkins
Rated PG-13