"Midnight in Paris", an effervescent comic fantasy, is Woody Allen in top form. Had anyone else but Allen written this finely layered, clever screenplay, I would have hailed the arrival of a formidable, original new cinematic talent. For those who have stayed in Allen's corner through his career triumphs, as well as through some of the more recent misfires, "Midnight in Paris" is a return to the "conversation" that fans like myself have enjoyed with him through the years, as he grappled with his characteristic issues of modern love, art in all its forms, creativity, and the wonderful absurdity of life.
"Midnight in Paris" returns Allen to the wistfulness and fragility of love ( "Annie Hall"), the comedic possibilities of past eras ("Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy", "Love and Death"), our relationships to fictional and literary heroes ("Purple Rose of Cairo"), and the complex alchemy of writing itself ("Manhattan"). This is the hopeful Allen of "Hannah and Her Sisters" and "Radio Days", blended with a new-found skill at complex plots, and the wisdom of perspective. Allen even reconfirms his touch for the sight-gag belly-laugh.
"Midnight in Paris" examines the common fantasy that such a thing as "the good old days" ever existed. Who hasn't imagined that living at another time would have been more fun, innocent, whatever? (I wished I could have been old enough to have attended Woodstock, to have been in the Haight-Ashbury or Central Park during the '60's youth movement, to have protested against Vietnam, to have met and spent time with Joni Mitchell, Crosby Stills and Nash, Arthur Penn, John Schlesinger, Dennis Hopper, and Pauline Kael, even though I know now how difficult the world was then.)
The vaguely dissatisfied protagonist of "Midnight in Paris" has a chance to inhabit an era that has captured his imagination and interact with the famous people who inspired him (like Cole Porter, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald). He is surprised to learn that people who live in his ideal time-period are bored with their "present" and yearn for an idealized past of their own. And so on. This is treated with magic and humor, with gorgeous visuals and set-pieces, moving easily and convincingly between past and present, in which both periods of time comment on each other in surprising and hilarious ways.
Allen has created a valentine to Paris in the same way he declared his love for New York City in his classic movies of the 1970's and '80's.
In a movie summer filled with generic super-heroes, computer effects and explosions, it was heartening to be among a packed house, in a multi-plex which is notorious for programming films for adolescent boys, and to hear loud applause at the end of "Midnight in Paris". It confirms for me that there is a hunger among a large group of neglected moviegoers for summer films that offer laughs, food for thought, and the drama of recognizable people in more or less real situations, even if the situations are the stuff of fairy tales.
Because, at heart, "Midnight in Paris" is a fairy tale. It's a knowing, affectionate story of a hack screenwriter and would-be novelist Gil (Owen Wilson) in Paris with his increasingly distant fiancee Inez (Rachel McAdams). As Inez spends more time with friends, including the insufferable pseudo-intellectual Paul (Michael Sheen), Gil walks the city at night and accepts an invitation to join a group of sophisticated party-goers in a vintage car. Soon, to his disbelieving and excited eyes, he is in Paris of the 1920's and his dream of meeting his heroes comes true.
His midnight visits continue, and there seems to be no rhyme or reason to how he is re-deposited into the present. He gets advice from Hemingway and Gertrude Stein, learns Picasso's real intent behind a "new" painting, dances to Cole Porter live, and falls in love with a socialite Adriana (Marion Cotillard). Just as Adriana becomes the embodiment of Gil's fantasy of the 1920's, she shakes his illusions by telling him that her world is boring, and she yearns to travel back even earlier, to the Belle Epoque.
Allen takes the threads and complications of the various stories he has created and ties them all together in the most satisfying way possible, so that in addition to reveling in his premise, he gives us the pleasures of classic movie romantic comedies. Gil's discussions with his new-found friends (who accept him with no questions) help him see the wayward path of his own life, and his connection to Porter leads him to unexpected love. The things he learns "firsthand" leads to one of the film's biggest laughs, as he refutes the know-it-all Paul in an art gallery.
I think it's possible for those who are unfamiliar with literary and artistic figures from the 1920's to enjoy the characters and situations presented in "Midnight in Paris". However, for me, having at least some recognition of the "celebrities" involved makes it a deeper--and much funnier--experience. The fact that Allen's Hemingway recites dialogue in the clipped manner in which Hemingway might have written it himself renders his scenes delightful. I chuckled when Gil pitches a movie idea to the young Luis Bunuel that would eventually become "The Exterminating Angel", and Bunuel doesn't "get" it. And who would have thought the utterance of the word "surrealists" would provide a good laugh.
At times, the film becomes akin to literary star-gazing (Oh look! There's T.S. Elliot! And did you hear Kathy Bates' Gertrude Stein refer to Alice....?) This is one aspect of the film that may work only the first time through. The period scenes are so full of energy, and so nicely decorated, that the scenes in which Gil returns to present-day Paris threaten to slow down the film's momentum; but they do work as a way of demonstrating Gil's feeling of being trapped, until his fateful visit to an antique store. And hey, it's Paris, so this portion of the film still has visual magic.
(For the uninitiated, or for the lifelong learners among you, here is a New York Times article that provides some brief background on each of the people Gil meets in 1920's Paris.)
As Gil, Owen Wilson is rumpled and completely likable as an artist torn between two worlds. He perfectly delivers Allen's dialogue, and instead of giving it Allen's east-coast anxiety, he makes the words his own, sort of California "laid-back" with a strong Allen flavor. I liked Wilson here more than in anything else I have seen him do (and I admit I have avoided some of the more raucous work.)
In fact, most of the performers here have never looked better. Adrien Brody is hot as Salvador Dali, with his new pencil-moustache, and his charming obsession with the word "rhinoceros". Kathy Bates is appropriately brusque and "artsy" as Gertude Stein, who proves to be Gil's mentor and savior.
My favorite of the literary figures is Corey Stoll's Hemingway. Stoll commands this role, and I couldn't take my eyes from him when he was on the screen. If Hemingway was not this sexy and compelling, he should have been. His best moment is delivering a line that all insecure writers understand: before reading Gil's manuscript, he claims he already doesn't like it, either because it will be badly written, or so well-done that he will be angry at his own inadequacies. Stoll is perfect, and I will look for more of his work.
And is there a lovelier screen presence than Marion Cotillard is here? One can see why Gil is instantly drawn to Adriana, and why he panics when she seeks to leave her era to travel back in time. Cotillard is perfectly cast, almost typecast but to great effect. The camera drinks her in in closeup, and her eyes light every scene. Cotillard lends a lot of authenticity and adds the right amount of bittersweet to her romance with Gil. The film effectively makes use of Adrianna's diary to connect Gil's present with his travels back. His romantic dilemma forms the central conflict in the film, which Allen resolves in a pleasantly predictable way.
With its intelligent writing, attractive cast performing at their best, and Allen's eye for camera placement and his inherent romanticism, this film scores in every department, and leaves audiences entertained and appreciative. It is too early, for me, to start making lists of the best films of 2011. All the same, it would be difficult to imagine seeing anything I will enjoy more than "Midnight in Paris."