★ ★

Even with two very appealing actors in the lead roles, Woody Allen’s Magic in the Moonlight is one of the duller films in his extensive catalogue. It stands out largely by being bad in a way that’s very different from most of his late-period work.

Colin Firth stars as Stanley, a popular magician with a successful nightclub act; he’s also a professional skeptic who has gained a certain amount of celebrity debunking psychics and mediums—he’s like a persnickety Depression-era Penn Jillette. He gets a visit from Howard (Simon McBurney), an old friend and fellow magician, who asks him for a favor. A wealthy family have been taken in by a young female psychic named Sophie (Emma Stone). The clan asked Howard to prove she was a fraud, but he thinks she might be on the level. Now, he wants Stanley to come see for himself.

Thrilled at the challenge, the egotistical Stanley agrees at once. However, Sophie appears to be the real thing, and soon the pessimistic fatalist finds himself obsessed with the idea of a spirit world and the chance for life after death; in time, he ends up becoming more of an optimist. Meanwhile, Sophie starts to find herself more drawn to Stanley than to the family’s supercilious son (Hamish Linklater), who obviously loves her.

The cast of Magic in the Moonlight are uniformly winning. Firth manages to make Woody Allen’s dialogue feel natural without falling back on Allen-esque line readings, and Stone brings a thankfully modern bent to her delivery that, though anachronistic for a film set in 1928, adds a welcome energy to her scenes. Supporting players Linklater, McBurney, and Eileen Atkins all make an impression in their first collaboration with Woody.

Sadly, the three-time winner of the Best Original Screenplay Oscar has given them nothing interesting to say. While the theme of how magic and love intertwine is worth exploring and the structure of the film is solid, the individual scenes all run out of steam because the characters never do anything but advance the plot or clarify what’s going on. The movie doesn’t trust the audience to draw any sort of deeper meaning from the proceedings, so the story becomes an endless string of people explaining things to each other and to us. The picture becomes a total bore even with such committed performances, not to mention the lush cinematography of Darius Khondji.

Magic in the Moonlight is frustrating precisely because it had genuine potential. If only Allen had bothered to rewrite the dialogue, it could have matched his late-career peak of Midnight in Paris. Instead, this feels like the result of filming a first-draft script that lacks humor, subtext, or three-dimensional characters.