Like lots of other grown-ups, I enjoy my yearly visits to Woody World. True, the rides are slower than Disney’s, there’s no Tomorrow Land, and the Haunted House has been closed for repairs since “Match Point.” But the old-fashioned Tunnel of Love is still open for business, there’s always jazz in the air, and the park has recently added a Pavilion of Nations.
“Magic in the Moonlight” is a rickety time-machine ride to the sunny south of France in the 1920s. That’s where we travel in a jaunty jalopy with master illusionist Wei Ling Soo. Offstage and out of his Chinese makeup, he is incognito as Stanley Crawford (Colin Firth), who prides himself on debunking spiritualists who prey on rich suckers.
Stanley’s friend and fellow magician Howard (Simon McBurney) claims he has met a genuine mystic who can communicate with the dead. She is a young American named Sophie (Emma Stone, as effervescently charming as ever), who has been making waves around the Riviera. The middle-class cutie has certainly cast a spell on wealthy, ukelele-strumming Brice (Hamish Linklater), who plies her with engagement gifts.
But Stanley is not so easily snookered. At a séance for Brice’s dotty mother (Jacki Weaver), Stanley is vigilant in his search for hidden wires and confederates.
Yet the girl continues to confound him, and on a visit to Stanley’s dowager aunt (Eileen Atkins), Sophie unearths long-buried secrets about the family. Soon, some alchemical mix of white wine, golden sunlight and Sophie’s red beret works its magic, and suddenly the rational man is espousing the power of love for the first time in his very English life.
While Stone’s “cosmic vibrations” schtick is reminiscent of a Lucille Ball routine, Firth seems to be channeling Rex Harrison. But before the besotted bachelor can ask “Where the devil are my flip-flops?” director Woody Allen has another card up his sleeve, one that at least partially relieves the discomfort of yet another May-December romance. (Firth is 53; Stone is 25.)
Allen is a lifelong magician himself and a skeptic in spiritual matters, so stagecraft and spoofery form a trapdoor beneath the lightweight love story. Yet largely thanks to the intoxicating scenery and the gorgeous natural-light cinematography, “Magic in the Moonlight” does weave its a spell, resurrecting the spirit of sturdier and more inventive movies by the same conjurer.