You’re about to read a review for what I consider to be the best film of the year so far. If you haven’t seen Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, I ask that you please stop at the end of this paragraph and come back later. The synopsis of this movie is a massive spoiler, and you’d be cheating yourself to learn anything about it beforehand. Additionally, this one’s definitely a big-screen experience. I implore you not to wait for home video. Now, off with you.
Hey! Welcome back! Still need a minute to pick up those few remaining pieces of your mind? Well, the critique train has just left the station, so hop on the back when you’re ready. Now, down to business…
I’m new to Woody Allen’s movies. Sad, but true: up until a recent dive into Manhattan and Crimes and Misdemeanors, my only exposure to his work was Small Time Crooks. But I’ve long been a fan of his 1969 comedy album, Standup Comic. In one of his routines, he talks about a crazy party he attended several years prior in Europe, where he mingled with the great artistic and literary luminaries of the 1920s.
Fast-forward more than forty years to his latest romantic comedy, in which Owen Wilson plays Gil Pender, a successful but wholly unfulfilled Hollywood screenwriter who’s vacationing in Paris with his fiancée, Inez (Rachel McAdams). Joining them are Inez’s ultra-elitist parents, John and Helen (Kurt Fuller and Mimi Kennedy), as well as Inez’s former college crush, Paul (a deliciously smarmy Michael Sheen), and his girlfriend, Carol (Nina Arianda). Gil is inspired by the splendor and romance of the city that he hopes will push him to write a novel; he sees himself as a hack who never bothered with literature until a recent mid-life crisis. Inez and her friends seem to have been born cultured, and have little time for Gil’s questions or cute, base-level observations (they’re like Diane Keaton’s character in Manhattan, minus the underlying self-awareness).
After following these joyless snobs around the city all day, listening to Paul argue with a French museum guide (Carla Bruni) about the identity of Rodin’s mistress, Gil opts for a drunken, late-night stroll. He gets lost in the winding streets and takes a breather on some steps. A moment later, a vintage Rolls Royce pulls up to the curb and a group of loud revelers ushers him inside. They drive to a high-society costume party, with a “Lost Generation” theme. A Cole Porter look-alike (Yves Heck) plays a rollicking version of “Let’s Do It” on the piano, and a comely, tipsy girl introduces herself as Zelda Fitzgerald (Alison Pill). She and her husband, Scott (Tom Hiddleston), take an instant liking to Gil, whose zonked-out disbelief they take as eccentricity. Before long, Gil accompanies the Fitzgeralds to Gertrude Stein’s (Kathy Bates) house for an impromptu critique of Pablo Picasso’s (Marcial Di Fonzo Bo) latest painting, with Ernest Hemingway (Corey Stoll) looking on.
It doesn’t take long for Gil to realize that he’s entered The Twilight Zone, that his hosts are, in fact, living, breathing incarnations of his heroes. Instead of freaking out, he plays along, giddily—engaging his mostly down-to-Earth new friends in heady conversation, and cozying up to Picasso’s muse, a darling French girl named Adriana (Marion Cotillard). At the end of the evening, Stein agrees to review the first draft of Gil’s novel; just as he’s left, he realizes that he didn’t suggest a time to drop by for notes. He turns around to find the house gone, replaced by an all-hours laundromat.
Fortunately, the car returns the next evening to pick him up, whisking Gil off to a thinking-man’s Wonka factory; he talks art with Salvador Dali, Man Ray and Luis Bunuel (Adrien Brody, Tom Cordier, and Adrien de Van, respectively) and dances with Josephine Baker (Sonia Rolland); on another evening, he shares a car with T.S. Eliot (David Lowe) and joins Adriana in conversation with Paul Gaugin (Olivier Rabourdin) and Henri de Touluse-Lautrec (Vincent Menjou Cortes).
Yes, the timeline of Gil’s adventure gets confused, as he begins to notice that his inspirations suffer the same maladies as he does in his day-life: he’s convinced that he was born in the wrong era, that Paris in the 1920s was a much better, cooler place than the corrupt, ignorant twenty-first century; but Adriana feels that life was much more interesting during La Belle Epoque, and she is guided (via horse-drawn carriage) through a similar time-travel wormhole.
Through this wacky alternate-universe story, Allen lays out his arguments for enjoying the richness of the now, in whatever era one’s “now” happens to be. Until the moment when the private detective Gil’s future father-in-law hires disappears, I was convinced that all the late-night adventures were figments of Gil’s imagination, that his mind had created an emergency intervention to keep Gil from marrying Inez and settling for a life of superficial misery. Indeed, Allen goes a tad over-the-top in making the occupants of Gil’s daytime reality despicable, boorish creeps (when Gil defends a maid that Inez thinks stole a pair of her earrings, she screams,“You always side with the help!”), and it’s unclear why Gil would have chosen to stick with her and her crazy family in the first place.
Of course, the answer is that she’s beautiful, and Gil—acting as Allen’s stand-in, complete with fits-and-starts line delivery and depressed-college-professor attire—is a sucker for a hot lady. It’s a theme I’ve noticed in Allen’s movies, and I just wish he’d gone a little further in rounding out his villains; though often hilarious and uncomfortably haughty, their one-dimensionality wears a bit thin. By contrast, the figments of Gil’s Lost Generation crowd are generally polite and relaxed, but can also be surly, vindictive, and selfish. Luckily for us, much of the picture is spent with the more pleasant set of characters.
I’d like to take a moment to share a unique experience I had while watching this wonderfully original film. I cried. So, what, right? It’s no big deal to get weepy during a movie. The thing is, I didn’t cry during the sad parts (mostly because there aren’t any). I was so overcome with emotion at seeing a master filmmaker take me to a place I absolutely did not expect to go that Allen’s ideas, score, cinematography, and brilliantly on-point cast blew my brains out the back of my head (hence my opening allusion). After months of enduring mind-numbing, modern crap, I felt like I’d entered the stargate from 2001 (lest you be concerned, it was a single-tear cry and not a full-on, blubbering weep-fest).
Midnight in Paris is a beautiful movie, bursting with hope, love and an appreciation of one of the world’s greatest cities on par with De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves. Sure, it’s cliche to build a movie around the idea that Paris is the romance capital of the world—but Allen makes a strong case; he takes great pains to make the city of the present just as alluring and full as the Paris of the past, a reinforcement of his thesis that people can find excitement and inspiration in their everyday lives and that nostalgia is as much of a prison as a bad relationship. This film may have started out as a bit in a standup routine, but Woody Allen has shaped it into a whimsical meditation on finding oneself after being lost in a spiritual wilderness.
[Originally published @ Kicking the Seat on 07/01/11.]