Midnight in Paris
It has been decades since I have gone to the theater with a wide-eyed anticipation of seeing a Woody Allen film. While some of you younger film goers may find this hard to believe, there was a moment in time when nothing on the big screen evoked more excitement than a new Woody Allen film. Think Bananas (1971); Play It Again, Sam (1972); Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (1972); Sleeper (1973); Love and Death (1975); The Front (1976); the classic Oscar-winning Annie Hall (1977); A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy (1982); Zelig (1983) and on and on.
However, that was long ago and in a time far, far away. It is merely acknowledging the obvious to say that Mr. Allen has not aged well, particularly given the controversy surrounding his decision to marry the adopted child (his step-daughter) of his then wife Mia Farrow. He became an instant pariah, though I prefer to view his conduct in the words of George Clooney as said to one of his idiot sidekicks in the Cohen Brothers’ classic, O Brother Where Art Thou? (2000), “Delmar, a man doesn’t look for logic in the chambers of the human heart.”
Regardless, Mr. Allen’s movies faded with his reputation. As he aged, his attempts to play the same neurotic, insecure schlemiel as he did so well when he was younger simply fell flat. Furthermore, his use of surrogate actors to play basically himself were unconvincing at best.
However, as seen by some recent films, particularly, Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008), Woody still has a little gas left in the tank. And while Midnight in Paris is not a great film, it is the best thing he has done in a long time.
Owen Wilson, who I must confess having little use for, does his best work since the extraordinarily funny Royal Tenenbaums (2001). Here he plays Gil, a likeable lug (i.e., like every other character he plays) who is a successful Hollywood screenwriter on holiday in Paris with his fiancée. Haunted by existential doubt, he feels that he should stay in Paris, embrace its creative, vibrant literary culture and write his long-postponed novel.
Wilson has been in a series of clunkers as reflected by his performances in You, Me and Dupree (2006); The Darjeeling Limited (2007); Drill Bit Taylor (2008); Little Fockers (2010) and Hall Pass (2011). Though he recreates basically the same character here in Midnight, he somehow seems more fresh and authentic, which may be due to the fact that he and Mr. Allen have a nice symbiotic effect on the other. Gil’s fiancée Inez (Rachel McAdams ) is the voice of reason, shallow though she is, and she wants nothing more than for Gil to abandon his silly dreams and return to their comfortable life in Santa Monica. Hollywood is just fine with her, particularly given the fact that they are tapped into its celebrity lifestyle.
What makes Midnight in Paris work centers on the Woodman’s creative decision resulting in Gil being magically transported back into the Paris of the 1920’s when a church bell tolls at, you guessed it, midnight. Having previously waxed nostalgic over this period, he suddenly finds himself a part of that magical literary circle. He’s chatting with Cole Porter, partying with Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, and discussing life’s rite of passage over drinks with the irascible Ernest Hemingway.
These scenes of Gil in Paris are great fun for two reasons. First of all, he is stunned to learn that the gay Parisians are reflecting on Paris of the 1890’s the same way he had mooned over Paris in the 1920’s. Secondly, the performances of Alison Pill as Zelda and Corey Stoll as Hemingway are deliciously spot on. Zelda clearly is well on her way to drinking herself into an eventual nervous breakdown while Stoll’s Hemingway literally steals the movie.
In addition, look for a positively great performance by the talented Michael Sheen as Paul, an overly educated, pompous, self-centered friend of Inez’s family. It is hard to believe that this is the same Mr. Sheen who captured both Tony Blair and David Frost so perfectly in the justifiably praised films The Queen (2006) and Frost/Nixon (2008).
In addition, though it is but a small scene, you should also look for Ms. Carla Bruni, whose day job is the wife of French President Nicholas Sarkozi, appearing as a museum guide. To bastardize an old phrase, “It’s good to be the wife of the King.”
Midnight in Paris is the cinematic equivalent of a delightful bottle of a good French bordeaux. It goes down easy, is mildly intoxicating and it makes for a comfortably fun evening. At a minimum it proves Woody Allen ain’t dead yet.