By Dave Wilson | June 9, 2011
Director: Woody Allen
Writer: Woody Allen
Starring: Owen Wilson, Rachel McAdams, Marion Cotillard, Kathy Bates, Adrien Brody, Michael Sheen, Carla Bruni
Midnight in Paris is the most successful, thoroughly enjoyable Woody Allen comedy in over a decade. If like me, you were looking for some signs of life, some evidence that Allen still had something worthwhile to say, here is some hope, as well as a generous helping of the old magic. Beyond that, wipe the slate clean and forget about Allen’s involvement for a moment. Midnight in Paris is a romantic comedy that is sharply written, wondrously absurd, and yes, even downright magical. Add to this the City of Light—yes, the romantic, rainswept Paris you imagine when you close your eyes—and you’ll see why it’s so easy to sink into your chair and forget about everything else for ninety minutes. This is the kind of movie that Cecilia (Mia Farrow) from Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985) might have adored.
Owen Wilson stars as Gil Pender, a hack Hollywood screenwriter who accompanies his beautiful fiancée, Inez (Rachel McAdams) and her not particularly nice parents (Kurt Fuller, Mimi Kennedy) on a trip to Paris to seal a business deal. For Gil, Paris is an endless source of romance and creative inspiration, the home to literary heroes, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Joyce, and all the rest. You see, Gil is finally working on his novel, and he’s so captivated by the cafes and rainy streets that his idols once haunted that’s he’s ready to cash everything in—the successful career, the new house in Malibu, and all of the comforts money can buy—for life in a garret scribbling away by candlelight. ‘All that’s missing is the tuberculosis,” one character observes tersely.
Gil’s fiancée, Inez, however, doesn’t understand any of this, treating all of Gil’s passions as pretensions and half-baked daydreams. Inez prefers life in L.A. For her, Paris is all about restaurants and antique shops, or jaunts to Versailles with her old college pals, Carol and Paul, an insufferable, pedantic professor type, who has a new a gig teaching at the Sorbonne and fancies himself an expert on, well, everything: Rodin’s mistresses, Monet’s brush strokes, French wine, or even court life at Versailles. Paul (Michael Sheen) is a wonderful comic creation who immediately takes his place in the pantheon of grating Allen intellectuals. Remember the guy in the Annie Hall movie line who Alvy wants to hit with a sock of manure after going on and on about Fellini and Marshall McLuhan? Or how about Manhattan’s Michael Murphy and Diane Keaton bashing Whitman, Van Gogh, and Ingmar Bergman for being overrated? Paul would fit right in with these folks. Inez thinks Paul is charming and erudite, of course, while Gil sees him as an arrogant fraud.
Well, things finally come to a head one night when Gil and Inez realize they’re just not on the same page and need a few hours apart. Inez goes out dancing with Carol and Paul, and Gil completely loses his bearings on a long, moonlight ramble through Paris. And now here’s where the magic kicks in. Alone in a deserted square at the stroke of midnight, Gil looks up to see a gleaming yellow 1920’s Peugeot roll up to the curb, loaded with beckoning, champagne-swilling Parisians dressed in Jazz Age gowns and tuxedos. Gil accepts their invitation, and finds himself in a crowded mansion with a party in full swing—and who’s on the piano singing the Cole Porter tune? Yeah, it’s Cole Porter.
And now Gil’s being whisked through Paris by Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald (Tom Hiddleston, Alison Pill), and none of this is a dream, not at all, but honest to God time travel. Gil is really there, awake, alive, adrift in the Paris of Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, somewhat baffled, but completely ecstatic, drinking gin, hitting the jazz clubs, and talking about the craft of writing with Hemingway himself, who says he’d be happy to show Gil’s novel to Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates).
As the film unfolds, Gil finds himself forced to lead a dual life, biding his time during the day and losing touch with Inez, while realizing that his true life, the one closest to his heart, begins each night at midnight when the Peugeot drives him back in time to 1920s Paris. And now there’s more at stake for Gil than nostalgia or wish fulfillment or recognition as a writer. One night at Gertrude Stein’s place, Gil meets a soulful, dark-eyed woman named Adriana, played by a mesmerizing Marion Cotillard (Inception, La Vie en Rose) who, inconveniently, happens to be Picasso’s mistress. Before Picasso, she tells him, there were Modigliani and Braque. “Wow, you take art groupie to a new level,” Gil says. But the two connect immediately, and Gil finds himself trying to catch up with her every time he slips back in time. Maybe it’s possible to lead a more authentic life with someone who accepts him for who he truly is. Does it really matter if she doesn’t live in the same era?
There is a playful, effortless quality to the entire film, and much of its charm comes from Allen’s deft touch in rendering these absurd little character sketches of the literary and artistic greats Gil rubs shoulders with. The most successful sketches simultaneously capture the essence of the artist while also affectionately sending them up. Hemingway (Corey Stoll) speaks just as he writes, for example; a faraway look in his eyes, he lets his words tumble out in simple, stilted declarative sentences, dripping with doom and gravitas, full of images of the hunt. True, much of this material comes very close to veering into Lost Generation Theme Park territory, but somehow never does because most of the actors in these small roles really nail their characters. Kathy Bates is a brilliant Gertrude Stein, authoritative, commanding, but ultimately kind-hearted. And when Adrien Brody turns up as Salvador Dali, wide-eyed and passionately fixated on rhinoceroses no matter what the topic of conversation, you may find yourself fighting for breath.
For many viewers, the real surprise will be the inspired casting of Owen Wilson in the lead role as the Woody Allen surrogate, Gil. Wilson makes the lovelorn sad sack part completely his own. His delivery of Allen’s trademark dialogue is natural and arises from his own personality and mannerisms without any of the stuttering or awkward mimicry that other Allen stand-ins slip into. Wilson is a kinder, gentler Woody Allen hero, a naive, likable underdog without the mean-spirited edge or penchant for lechery we’ve come to expect. Gone are the callousness, misanthropy, and bitter sarcasm that have increasingly overshadowed Woody Allen’s heroes since about the time of Deconstructing Harry (1997). Whatever Works, Allen’s 2009 collaboration with Larry David, for instance, was so full of spleen and ire that I found it to be almost completely unwatchable.
Despite its considerable delights and pleasant surprises, Midnight in Paris has a light, insubstantial, hit and miss quality to it. For all of Gil’s insecurities about life, love, and creativity, the stakes feel far too low, so that what we’re left with is a whimsical little jaunt through history with some crackling performances, but with many of the larger questions left by the wayside. At its best, Midnight in Paris has the charm and dizzy sensibility of other Allen nostalgia comedies like Radio Days (1987), Bullets Over Broadway (1994), and one of his true masterpieces, The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985). Like Purple Rose, Midnight in Paris is an offbeat fable, where magic is part of the everyday, the rules of the game can change at a moment’s notice, and heroes like Gil and Mia Farrow’s Cecilia take it all in stride, delighting in the consequences and the alluring promise of something better. If movie character, Tom Baxter (Jeff Daniels) can step off the big screen and take a lovelorn waitress by the hand, why can’t an old Peugeot drive you back into the 1920s?
Unfortunately, Midnight in Paris just doesn’t have the same depth or breadth of emotion as Purple Rose of Cairo—where Cecilia’s alternatives are poverty, an abusive husband, and deep-rooted loneliness. Sure, it’s tough to be a misunderstood artist, but Gil and Inez are so mismatched from the start, that we feel certain that Gil will just do what he needs to do regardless of his fiancée’s disapproval. More than anything else, this mismatched relationship feels more like a device than a problem that needs to be overcome.
Midnight in Paris is not a great film, but it is smart, literate, playful, and frequently hilarious. You get the feeling that Allen is not reaching very far; this is the kind of nostalgia-steeped comedy he could knock out year after year, once upon a time. Nevertheless, it is wonderful to see that after so many misfires, Allen still has the ability to craft a fable that is light-hearted, romantic, and full of hope.