Woody Allen remains one of the most prolific American filmmakers working today. At the age of 75, Allen still manages to write and direct a new film every year, even if they aren’t as critically acclaimed as those of the past. Every so often, he’ll craft a picture (Match Point, Vicky Cristina Barcelona) that will have movie buffs clamoring about how it’s a welcome return to form for the man behind works like Hannah and Her Sisters and Crimes and Misdemeanors. Midnight in Paris is just such a film, capturing the wit that was once Allen’s trademark. More importantly, Midnight in Paris is simply a flat out fun experience, which is not a description that is generally used in discussing a Woody Allen movie.
The plot has largely been kept a secret. Judging by the trailers and advertisements, Midnight in Paris would seem to be no different than anything else Woody Allen has made. However, there is an incredibly clever plot twist that I hesitate to reveal because the surprise is part of the fun. Yet, I don’t think I would have rushed out to see the movie if I hadn’t learned about it. Plus, it’s difficult to review the film without mentioning it so…
Midnight in Paris begins in a similar fashion to Manhattan with a jazzy montage of the gorgeous sights to be found in Paris. We meet Owen Wilson as Allen’s stand-in, Gil Pender, a self-described hack screenwriter of innocuous Hollywood fare. He is visiting the City of Lights with his fiancée Inez (Rachel McAdams) and her parents (Kurt Fuller & Mimi Kennedy). Gil is excited about the possibilities that await him as he works on his novel about a man who works in a nostalgia shop. He waxes poetic about rain soaked streets and Paris as a cultural haven for the greatest artists of the 20th century. But, Inez and her folks haven’t a romantic bone in their body. They are stuffy conservatives constantly clashing with Gil’s more Bohemian interests. The final straw for Gil is the arrival of Inez’s friend, Paul (Michael Sheen), a pedantic and pompous professor more than happy to show off how much smarter he is than everybody else.
To escape Paul’s hot air, Gil decides to take a nightly stroll through the cobbled streets of Paris. He winds up lost on some innocent-looking street corner when the clock strikes midnight and a vintage car pulls up and whisks Gil away to what he thinks is an elaborate costume party. Wait, did somebody say this shindig is for Jean Cocteau? And the guy playing the piano sure resembles Cole Porter. Yes, Gil has been magically transported to the 1920’s where he’s greeted by Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald (Alison Pill & Tom Hiddleston). Next thing you know, he’s sitting in a bar with Ernest Hemingway (Corey Stoll), who promises to show Gil’s manuscript to Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates).
Each night Gil escapes the drudgery of his shrewish paramour and her insufferable clan to converse with T.S. Elliot (“Prufrock is my mantra!”) and dance the Charleston with Djuna Barnes. Gil’s predicament is so surreal that he can only discuss it with the surrealists Luis Bunuel, Man Ray, and Salvador Dali (Adrien Brody). In one of many gags that will have viewers rushing to check Wikipedia, Gil pitches Bunuel the concept for The Exterminating Angel, which only befuddles the soon-to-be famed filmmaker (“Why don’t they just get up and leave?”). Not all the jokes are so esoteric. When Gil hears Stein has purchased a Matisse for a mere 500 francs, he asks if he can also pick up six or seven.
Gil finds himself falling in love with Adriana (Marion Cotillard), a beautiful muse/mistress to artistic giants like Modigliani and the pioneers of Cubism, Picasso and Braque. Adriana, in turn, wishes she could have been alive during La Belle Epoque. Sure enough, a horse-drawn carriage whisks them away to 1890’s where they watch can-can dancers with Gauguin, Degas, and Toulouse-Lautrec. A perfect Woody Allen moment occurs when Gil complains they are in an era before the invention of antibiotics.
Owen Wilson’s Gil may act as a surrogate for Allen in the sense of being a creative soul caught in a stifling environment, but he is far less neurotic than the typical Allen protagonist. Wilson melds the character with his own laid-back persona and trademark drawl. Michael Sheen is also fantastic as the appallingly arrogant scholar who annoyingly prefaces his sentences with phrases like, “If I’m not mistaken,” or “I believe…,” as if he were attempting to hedge his bets. He is the vainglorious pseudo-intellectual Allen has enthusiastically skewered numerous times, most famously in Annie Hall. You half expect Marshall McLuhan to be pulled into the scene to refute every ridiculous thing Paul says. Rachel McAdams isn’t given much to do as a one-note character. It’s a cheat on Allen’s part to put Inez and Gil together because it doesn’t make any sense why these two would ever be together. Then again, it doesn’t make any sense that a man could travel back in time via a Peugeot. A DeLorean, maybe…
The real stars of Midnight in Paris are the who’s who of actors brought on to play the who’s who of artistic giants. Allen makes no attempt to accurately depict these people. They are broadly drawn caricatures filtered through decades of pop culture. Alison Pill is the flighty flapper we imagine Zelda Fitzgerald to be. Tom Hiddleston (in a complete 180 from Loki) doesn’t have much screen time as the author of The Great Gatsby though hints of the Fitzgeralds tempestuous marriage seep through. Adrien Brody is delightfully over-the-top as an exceedingly eccentric Dali. His offer to sketch Gil involves a rhinoceros, a teardrop, and the face of Christ. Brody definitely makes a better Dali than the pretty boy from Twilight. Corey Stoll, by a wide margin, gives the best performance in the film as Hemingway. He speaks the way he writes, in terse, blustery sentences about masculine subjects like hunting, war, and death.
Midnight in Paris is a wankfest for English Lit and Art History majors and I mean that in the most complimentary way. Allen has created a clever and vibrant romp akin to The Purple Rose of Cairo with its blurring of reality and fantasy. It is a modern-day fairy tale that embraces nostalgia, but only in moderation. This refuting is ironic considering Allen’s own proclivities have been less than contemporary. The past may be a nice place to visit, but you wouldn’t want to live there.