In the five years that I’ve been writing reviews, five Woody Allen movies have been released and this is the fourth I’ve reviewed (never got around to You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger). That he’s kept up this prolific output is amazing, he is to film what “Law & Order” is to television; a long running institution that consistently pumps out new episodes that are all the same yet all different in worthwhile ways. Like “Law & Order,” Woody Allen’s filmography would see its cast members change and would see styles and issues change with their eras, but would consistently chug along. Also like “Law & Order” Woody Allen would long remain an institution that was closely linked with New York City, at least until very recently. Right around the time “Law & Order” began spinning off into new locations Woody Allen suddenly became very interested in making movies about Americans abroad, specifically Americans finding themselves in romantic European cities. One of Allen’s very best recent films, Vicky Christina Barcelona, dealt with this topic in relation to the titular Spanish city but the topic is brought to the next level with his latest film Midnight in Paris.
The American abroad in this film is Gil Pender (Owen Wilson), a successful Hollywood screenwriter who aspires to become a respected novelist. Gil has come to Paris along with his fiancé Inez (Rachel McAdams) while her father (Kurt Fuller) negotiates a business deal there. Gil has long been enthralled by Paris, or at least a romantic vision of what Paris was like during the 1920s when it was the stomping ground for artists and writers from all over the world. This romantic vision of the city makes him think it would be a great place to finish his novel (which is itself about nostalgia), but everyone around him thinks he’s being silly. His future father-in-law, dislikes France for its political affiliations while his fiancé is constantly trying to bring him down to earth, telling him to stop taking walks around Paris because he’d “just get lost.” Indeed, Gil does get lost one night, but he’s saved at the stroke of midnight when an old car pulls up to give him a ride. To his surprise, the car literally transports him back to the era he’d been pining over, allowing him to meet all of his literary heroes.
The scenes in the 1920s have an aura of magical realism to them, they aren’t technically fantasy sequences (it is established that Gil’s actions in the past quite literally affect the future), they still feel like a manifestation of his subconscious. Gil meets and converses with various historical figures like F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, and is more or less accepted by all of them. In doing so he finds that many of them were mere mortals who were often just as unsure of themselves as Gil is in his modern life. For instance, in one scene Gil approaches a young Luis Buñuel and describes to him the plot of his 1962 surrealist film The Exterminating Angel, only to have Buñuel stare at him in confusion and say “I don’t get it.” What’s more, he finds that all of them are just as filled with nostalgia in the 1920s as Gil was in 2011. They all wish that they could visit Paris during the “belle époque” of the 1890s, and just don’t appreciate just how important their own lives are. Is this a particularly deep message? Not really, in fact Gil even refers to it as a “minor” revelation when all is said and done, but it’s conveyed in a witty way and I appreciated it.
The scenes in the 20s also allow for a number of fun cameo appearances by historical figures, some of them portrayed by celebrities. These portrayals range from humblingly realistic (such as Tom Hiddleston’ F. Scott Fitzgerald or Kathy Bates’ Gertrude Stein) to farcical (like Adrien Brody’s Salvador Dalí). The one portrayal of a historical figure that I really wasn’t fond of was Corey Stoll’s Ernest Hemingway, which seemed to dip pretty far into caricature and is loaded with strange speeches like “that’s what war does to men… there’s nothing fine and noble about dying in the mud unless you die gracefully… then it’s not only noble but brave” which certainly sounds like something that he’d write but which I doubt would ever be spontaneously be said in a conversation. Of course this speechifying on the character’s part does work as comedy because it sort of freaks out Gil, but I would have thought that Hemingway would fit particularly well in the film’s overall depiction of humanized geniuses given his eventual demise at his own hand.
While the scenes in the 1920s are all good fun, I found the scenes in modern Paris to be a bit more problematic. In particular I was annoyed at how much Allen chooses to depict the city of Paris through rose colored glasses. Almost every shot of the city makes it look like a “magical” place filled with landmarks. At times the film feels like it was funded by the Parisian board of tourism, in fact I’d be shocked if it wasn’t. It seems like a lost opportunity in that Allen could have juxtaposed Gil’s romantic view of the city with the reality of Paris as an often crime-ridden (by European standards) city that can be prone to race-riots. Woody Allen has often been plenty gushy about his home turf of New York, but even when he filmed it in black and white and set it to Irving Berlin music he still acknowledged (often in comedic ways) that the city has shortcomings.
It also probably shouldn’t be overlooked that this does function just fine as a witty dialogue based comedy. The film’s primary plot involves a love triangle between Gil, his fiancé, and a woman from the 1920s named Adriana (Marion Cotillard). This is pretty typical of Allen’s work and has a lot of his usual comedic insights into relationships. Owen Wilson works pretty well as a Woody Allen surrogate, he’s certainly better in the role than Larry David was in 2009’s Whatever Works, but he never quite takes hold of Allen’s rhythms as well as actors like John Cusack have in the past. The movie can be pretty funny at times in the way you’d expect one of Allen’s movies to be, it won’t make you bust your gut laughing but it does elicit sporadic laughter.
When Midnight in Paris debuted at the Cannes Film Festival it was received with incredible warmth. People called it a return to form for Woody Allen, and I’m not going to go that far. First of all, I think that 2008’s Vicky Christina Barcelona was Allen’s true return to form and a vastly superior film to this in general. This is a film I’d equate more to a Mighty Aphrodite or a Sweet and Lowdown than I would with one of Allen’s true classics, but those are good entertaining movies, certainly good company to be in.
*** out of Four