Film Review: “Midnight in Paris”

by Jason LeRoy on May 27, 2011

Marion Cotillard and Owen Wilson in MIDNIGHT IN PARIS

starring: Owen Wilson, Rachel McAdams, Marion Cotillard, Michael Sheen, Kathy Bates, Carla Bruni, Adrien Brody, Tom Hiddleston, Alison Pill

written and directed by: Woody Allen

MPAA: Rated PG-13 for some sexual references and smoking.

Kenneth Branagh, John Cusack, Larry David — many a fine actor has faced the thankless task of being Woody Allen’s onscreen surrogate when he’s clearly written a part with himself in mind, and then for whatever reason decided not to play it. It is perhaps one of the most dreaded elements of each new Woody Allen film, especially following Branagh’s eye-gougingly literal Woody impression in Celebrity. So, imagine my surprise that none other than Owen Wilson — he of the surfer drawl and penchant for mediocre dude comedies — somehow emerges as Woody’s best leading man in ages in Midnight in Paris, Allen’s most potent and charming comedy since the similarly Paris-set Everyone Says I Love You.

Wilson stars as Gil, who is on a Parisian vacation with his joyless nag of a fiancée, Inez (Rachel McAdams). They are joined periodically by Inez’s right-wing Tea Party parents, John (Kurt Fuller) and Helen (Mimi Kennedy), as well as her insufferable friends Paul (Michael Sheen) and Carol (Nina Arianda). Paul is a classic Allen pretentious buffoon, pompously hijacking each sightseeing occasion to display his vast knowledge of all things French. He is Allen’s latest update on the Marshall McLuhan expert in the movie line from Annie Hall.

Gil is a self-proclaimed “hack” Hollywood screenwriter suffering from artistic anxiety, and he’s hoping to tap into the spirit of Paris’ rich cultural heritage to draw inspiration for a novel he’s writing. Inez is less than sympathetic, and would prefer Gil to instead focus on their imminent wedding, as well as Paul’s allegedly insightful lectures on French art and wine. And then, when he gets lost one night on the city streets following a wine-soaked dinner, Gil suddenly finds himself being bidden into a vintage Peugeot. The two passengers in the car identify themselves as Scott (Tom Hiddleston) and Zelda (Alison Pill). As in, the Fitzgeralds.

It turns out that Gil has somehow happened upon a mysterious portal that transports him back in time to the exact moment in Parisian history that he’s longing to experience in his own life: the 1920s, when writers like Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway (Corey Stoll), and Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates) were living and writing in a symbiotic community on the Left Bank. Gil can only return to this period for short periods of time before finding himself back in the present day. And so, each night he waits for the Peugeot to take him back in time, where he meets more and more of his idols, becoming enmeshed in their lives. This strange late-night behavior begins to take its toll on his relationship with Inez, as does his time-travel flirtation with Adriana (Marion Cotillard), a Picasso muse.

The 1920s is an era Allen has always done well, as exemplified by two of his best films, The Purple Rose of Cairo and Bullets Over Broadway. And he is specifically indulging his own love of Left Bank history here; in Allen’s ’60s standup, he favored a bit about traveling back in time to this exact moment and having a series of altercations that each led to being punched in the mouth by Hemingway (and, eventually, by Gertrude Stein). Perhaps that is why Midnight in Paris is Allen’s sweetest, most optimistic film in over a decade, which is a welcome respite from the caustic cautionary tales of Whatever Works and You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger.

This shouldn’t suggest that Paris is not very much a Woody Allen film. Within the first fifteen minutes, one character has been ruled a “pseudo-intellectual” and the concept of nostalgia has been dubbed “denial.” A bit later, Allen successfully coaxes France’s impossibly chic first lady, former model and musician Carla Bruni (who plays a docent), into saying the word “pedantic,” which had to have tickled him. While much of the film is dreamy and upbeat, it does reserve a fair bit of hostility for Inez and her parents. McAdams is stuck playing the classic Allen bitch, and he also gets in a few digs at the Tea Party through her parents.

If Paris has one weakness, it’s an over-reliance on the ever-expanding list of “cameos” from literary and artistic icons. Furthermore, much of the film’s humor and delight is based on knowing references to these figures. If you get it, you will shriek with delighted recognition, but if you don’t, you’re out in the cold. And I enjoy a Djuna Barnes gag as much as the next guy, but it all gets to be a bit tiresome by the end. One low point in particular is an appearance by Adrien Brody as Salvador Dali. Nope.

Despite its few shortcomings, Midnight in Paris is a thoroughly charming comic fantasy. Woody Allen has crafted an immensely appealing love letter to the City of Lights and any poor sucker who’s ever been convinced they were born in the wrong era.

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