Midnight in Paris
Director : Woody Allen
Screenplay : Woody Allen
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2011
Stars : Owen Wilson (Gil Pender), Rachel McAdams (Inez), Marion Cotillard (Adriana), Kurt Fuller (John), Mimi Kennedy (Helen), Michael Sheen (Paul), Nina Arianda (Carol), Carla Bruni (Museum Guide), Yves Heck (Cole Porter), Alison Pill (Zelda Fitzgerald), Corey Stoll (Ernest Hemingway), Tom Hiddleston (F. Scott Fitzgerald), Sonia Rolland (Joséphine Baker), Daniel Lundh (Juan Belmonte), Laurent Spielvogel (Antiques Dealer), Thérèse Bourou-Rubinsztein (Alice B. Toklas), Kathy Bates (Gertrude Stein), Marcial Di Fonzo Bo (Pablo Picasso), Adrien Brody (Salvador Dalí), Tom Cordier (Man Ray), Adrien de Van (Luis Buñuel), Serge Bagdassarian (Détective Duluc), Gad Elmaleh (Detective Tisserant), David Lowe (T.S. Eliot), Yves-Antoine Spoto (Henri Matisse), Laurent Claret (Leo Stein), Vincent Menjou Cortes (Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec), Olivier Rabourdin (Paul Gauguin), François Rostain (Edgar Degas)
Literate and funny, light-hearted yet frequently eloquent, Midnight in Paris, Woody Allen’s 41st theatrical feature, is one of his best in years and the kind of film that could only be made by a filmmaker decades into his career. The subject of the film is nostalgia, that romantic yearning we all have for a past tense that is, more often than not, an emotional projection of our own desires, rather than an actual time and place that has been lost. Allen has certainly used his films to indulge in his own forms of nostalgia over the years, especially the art and literature of the past, but it has always been tempered by the Freudian battle between romance and cynicism that has largely defined his oeuvre as an artist. The film’s moral is clear--nostalgia is our own creation and it can keep us from living to our fullest in the present--but, at the same time, Allen refuses to dismiss its pleasures, instead suggesting that nostalgia can serve an artistic and intellectual purpose as long as it enhances, rather than distracts us from, the here and now.
In an unlikely but ultimately astute casting choice, Owen Wilson plays Gil Pender, a familiar and sympathetic Woody Allen surrogate (Wilson’s casual charm takes the edge off the character’s potential for moroseness). Gil is a successful screenwriter who is working on his first novel, which he hopes will break him out of the commercialized Hollywood doldrums of movie writing and rewriting and ensconce him firmly in the world of capital-A Art, which he associates primarily with the artists of the 1920s, particularly the Americans who found creative nourishment in Paris. Gil happens to be spending a week in Paris with his snobby, materialistic fiancée Inez (Rachel McAdams in a thanklessly bitchy role) and her wealthy father (Kurt Fuller) and mother (Mimi Kennedy), whose Tea Party mentality ensures that they will be suspicious of their shaggy, would-be bohemian son-in-law-to-be. Gil is already bothered by the fact that Inez would rather shop than indulge in true Parisian culture, and things are made worse by the arrival of Paul (Michael Sheen), a pretentious literary professor who loves to pontificate, that particular form of shallow intellectualism that Allen has made a constant target in his films (at least since the self-important Columbia professor waxed obnoxiously about Marshall McLuhan and Federico Fellini in Annie Hall).
Gil finds escape in a fantastical turn of events that takes him back to Paris in the 1920s each might at midnight, which allows him to not only meet his literary heroes--F. Scott Fitzgerald (Tom Hiddleston), Ernest Hemingway (Corey Stoll), Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates), and others--but engage them intellectually as they discuss his novel-in-progress, which is about the owner of a nostalgia shop and therefore reads like science fiction to his Jazz Era compatriots. So, each night Gil returns to the same street corner where a car picks him up and whisks him away to what is, in his mind, the greatest period of artist production, while he spends his days working on his novel and generally trying to avoid Inez and her family, whose materialist view of Paris as a shopping and dining Mecca makes them incapable of understanding Gil’s fascination with a previous age. It is obvious from the start that Gil and Inez are a terrible match, and it is no surprise that he is drawn to Adriana (Marion Cotillard), a fictional woman and all-around use who is currently involved with Pablo Picasso (Marcial Di Fonzo Bo), but (like Gil) feels unfulfilled by her life and yearns for a previous era, in this case the Belle Époque. The film’s message about the potentially engulfing nature of nostalgia is hammered home when Gil and Adriana finds themselves magically taken back to her ideal time, where they discover such luminaries as Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (Vincent Menjou Cortes) and Paul Gauguin (Olivier Rabourdin) wishing that they were part of the Renaissance. And ’round and ’round we go.
Despite the obviousness of the film’s message, Allen delivers it with a sense of wit and playfulness that is characteristic of his best works. Few filmmakers have been consistently better at marrying philosophy and comedy, perhaps because Allen makes us see them as two sides of the same coin. There is a certain familiarity to Midnight in Paris, despite its being the first of Allen’s films to be shot in the City of Lights (his current love of Europe, which started with the London-set Match Point in 2005, shows no signs of abating), but it is worn comfortably and without excuses. Midnight in Paris is also one of the best-looking films Allen has ever made. Cinematographer Darius Khondji (who shot Allen’s 2003 film Anything Else and is also working on his next film) makes Paris feel truly magical, especially during a lyrical opening montage of static shots set to Sidney Bechet’s “Si Tu Vois Ma Mère.”
Owen Wilson gives a poignant, funny central performance, and he successfully infuses Gil with some familiar Woody-isms (the nervousness, the exasperation at other’s pretensions, a penchant for saying the wrong thing at the wrong time), but without coming across like he’s doing a Woody Allen impression, and he is surrounded by a strong supporting cast that brings the historical figures to life in a way that makes them feel new (Adrian Brody is particularly amusing as the great surrealist Salvador Dali). While the film’s ending, which is open and hopeful, feels be a bit too tidy in retrospect, the path to get there is consistently delightful.
Copyright ©2011 James Kendrick
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