It’s never come up before on this blog, but your humble host absolutely loves Woody Allen. I never miss his one of his films and usually try to make it a point to go out and catch them on opening weekend. Sure, it’s been something of a bumpier ride lately, as his international travelogue has been going on for the better part of a decade now and there will probably always be something intrinsically off about a Woody Allen movie that doesn’t take place in New York, but what the hell — his extended sojourn abroad has produced at least one genuine classic in Match Point, and that makes clunkers like Scoop and pointless dead-enders like Vicky Cristina Barcelona worth it to devotees of the maestro and his work. Mostly what we’ve gotten are middling efforts like You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger and Cassandra’s Dream (which was nowhere near as bad as everyone says, but does prove that Allen has trouble writing anything other than well-educated, economically-upper-crust characters — still, he gave it a shot), but I’m pleased to say that his latest, Midnight In Paris, is a definite gem — an earnest, if flawed, love letter to a magical place and times gone by that nevertheless keeps its footing in reality, it’s a celebration of both Paris as it was, and of the city, and life in general (warts and all), as it is today.
And in a way, it pains me to say this because I absolutely despise Owen Wilson. I mean, with a passion, His whole shtick is just so fucking tedious in the extreme that the idea of his playing Woody’s latest younger-version-of-himself stand-in grated on my nerves before I even saw the film. Okay, Owen, you’ve got messy hair and a goofy nose. Get the fuck over yourself already.
Still, this is such a charming little flick that even Wilson can’t ruin it. It’s a little bit light on substance, to be sure, and Rachel McAdams’ Inez character is two-dimensional in the extreme, but sometimes you just get taken in by a clever premise and all you can do it sit back and enjoy the ride.
And the premise for Midnight In Paris is, indeed, clever in the extreme. Wilson portrays Hollywood hack screenwriter Gil Pender, who’s understandably dissatisfied with the Tinseltown rat race and has gone to Paris with his fiancee, the aforementioned Inez, and her overbearing wealthy parents. Inez is such a superficial harpy that you honesty wonder what Gil ever saw in the spoiled little bitch in the first place, and her mom and dad are even worse. Their whole life apparently revolves around planning an elaborate wedding and buying a house, but the more he’s sucked into vacuous, empty world of Inez’s pedestrian dreams, the more he finds himself taken with the City of Lights, and who can really blame the guy?
One evening Gil decides to cut things short after dinner with Inez and her friends Carol (Nina Arianda) and Paul (Michael Sheen, turning in a deliciously OTT performance as an overbearing know-it-all,pretentious college professor — nobody writes a more entertaining asshole than Woody Allen, and his last several films have sorely lacked this key ingredient, so it’s nice to see he hasn’t lost his touch), and decides to stroll home alone while they go out dancing. While sitting on some church steps and taking in the night, though, something remarkable happens — an old Peugeot cab emerges from nowhere , its drunken occupants invite Gil inside for a ride, and soon, for reasons never made in the least bit clear and that don’t really matter much anyway, he’s hob-nobbing with a veritable who’s-who of the literary and artistic world in 1920s Paris. They’re all here, folks — F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Pablo Picasso, Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Salvador Dali, Cole Porter, you name it.
Yeah, I know, I wouldn’t want to come back either, but as the sun rises in the morning Gil finds himself back in the dreary confines of his well-to-do-but-empty existence. The next night, though, the cab is back, and in fact it returns each subsequent evening at the stroke of midnight. Soon Gil is best pals with all the artistic intelligentsia of the time (and it must be said the casting for all these roles is extraordinary, with special mention going to Kathy Bates as Stein, Adrien Brody as Dali and Corey Stall as Hemingway, who tear into their roles with absolute relish to one degree or another), his novel is finally coming together, and he’s falling in love with a young lady named Adriana (given that she’s played by Marion Cotillard can you really blame him?) who’s also being pursued by both Picasso and Hemingway. We get more cameos from the likes of Man Ray, Alice B. Toklas, Josephine Baker, and Djuana Barnes, to name-drop just a few more, and by this point you’re either taken with the movie’s admittedly less-than-subtle spell, or you’re just not human.
Still, this being a Woody Allen film and all, no paradise can last forever, and just as he’s falling for Adriana, the time travel thing kicks into high gear and sends them both back even further, to 1890s Paris and the Belle Epoque, and Adriana must choose between with her newfound love or remaining in Paris’ most legendary era ever.
And therein lies the rub — Midnight In Paris is cautious about its own romanticism, and Allen admits that his legendary taste for the nostalgic is a dead end in its own right, if a most pleasant and endearing one. The past ain’t worth a fuck if we get lost in it rather than taking whatever lessons it has to offer and applying them to our lives in the present. Will Gil be sucked in completely, or will he do the right thing, painful as it may be, and return home while he still can?
Look, you probably already know the answer to this, but I won’t soil it completely just on principle. Suffice to say that Gil’s decision is one which will surprise no one, and will lead to resolution that wraps up all loose ends a little too quickly and a little tidily, but that rings true despite its flaws. Which is rather reflective of the film itself, it must be said — hardly perfect, maybe a little bit over-indulgent (the cameo by France’s First Lady, Carla Bruni, as a museum tour guide particularly makes no real sense), and all a bit too neat, but enchantingly perfect in its own way nevertheless.
By the time the film ends with Paris in the rain (of course), you’ll have been subjected to every romanticized cliche about the city, both present and past, you could possibly imagine — but rather than feeling pandered or condescended to, you’ll be smiling all the way home.