Movie Review – Midnight in Paris (2011)
Woody Allen returns to form here with a charming adult fairy tale that manages to touch upon many of his favourite themes yet feels fresh and engaging enough for most of its run time. At one point in the film Owen Wilson playing essentially the prototypical Woody Allen character asks, “Is it possible to love two women at the same time,” which is certainly a sound inquiry but unfortunately, Allen does fall into a time-worn cliché of essentially cheating since he completely eviscerates any chance that the protagonist will ever decide to choose one over the other. Although the film has other underlying messages to present this lack of real choice basically makes large sections of the movie unwatchable merely because there is no suspense as to which woman the hero will eventually shack up with.
Owen Wilson is Gil, an American Hollywood screenwriter who has decided to forego the profession and turn to becoming a true auteur by penning his first book. Unfortunately, he has many pressing issues foremost being that he’s knee-deep in wedding preparations with his fiancé Inez (Rachel McAdams) as the duo have arrived in Paris for an extended holiday. In addition, it probably doesn’t help that Inez’s parents who are along for the ride are nothing more than rich snobs who, horrors, adhere to the totally opposite political viewpoint than Gil and that Inez’s ex-boyfriend Paul (Michael Sheen) shows up unexpectedly to wax poetic on any topic imaginable. Oh yes, and before I forget, Gil is afflicted with that sometimes terminal condition that affects most artists, that of writer’s block.
Stressed, confused and immensely agitated Gil manages to extricate himself from these hectic events by taking a solo evening stroll through the streets of Paris. As he wanders the picturesque city he finds himself at what appears to be any old street corner when a nearby clock strikes midnight and before long a 1920s automobile pulls up and its occupants invite him in. Instead of finding himself hostage in some wacko party Gil cannot believe his eyes as he’s magically transported back in time to Paris circa 1920 and soon finds himself hobnobbing with all his literary heroes but something more fetching catches his fancy – Adrianna (Marion Cotillard) a striking beauty that unfortunately is in the midst of a relationship with Picasso as well as being wooed by Ernest Hemmingway. Does Gil stand a chance and does he really even want to get involved?
Without giving away too much more of the plot I will say that any frequent moviegoer will immediately understand within five minutes who Gil will end up with. Allen doesn’t even bother to provide any justification for one of them and even worse presents the viewers with scenes that will have many throwing their hands up in frustration at how poorly Gil is being treated. In addition, with one woman completely out of the running the film simply stalls whenever this candidate is on screen of no fault of the actress but merely because of Gil’s ill-treatment that continues throughout the entire run time. There is not one modicum of dialogue or action that shows that this woman even truly loves Gil making audiences lose all sympathy for her and wish that she’d be hit by a bus. Of course many will ask the relevant question as to why Gil never notices these issues yet at least Allen manages a fairly clever way to answer that.
As big an issue as Gil’s choice of lover though is the allure of the time period in question here which for the most part is Paris in the 1920s. Gil meets many of the period’s most famous artists from Ernest Hemmingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, to Gertrude Stein and Salvador Dali and though Gil is understandably thrilled at meeting his idols those in the audience may or may not share his sentiment. Simply put, if you have no idea who any of these figures are then Midnight in Paris loses much of its charm since Gil spends so much time interacting with them. For those who have no real knowledge of these figures I am not so sure they will be won over by all these cameos which are only superficially defined by their stereotypical traits. Thus someone like Ernest Hemmingway who regales Gil with colourful advice laced with his military analogies might seem like nothing more than, to use the film’s terminology, a pedantic braggart. Watching Salvador Dali constantly talk about rhinoceros while interlacing his speech by emphasizing his own name might have special meaning for some but obviously if one doesn’t know Dali’s place in history then he comes off as nothing more than a quirky character that has an almost unhealthy penchant for that particular animal.
Aside from these issues, Allen has crafted an incredibly breezy movie that manages to suck viewers in with its mature tale of romance tinged with an enormous amount of introspection. That is not to say that Gil sits his rear end down in a chair and broods for hours as Allen shows his skill here by weaving many ideas, morals and messages into the film that are cleverly buried within the narrative. In other words, he manages to avoid what lesser directors/writers would have done which would be to browbeat the themes into the audience at every opportunity.
Allen himself is no spring chicken and as such the screenplay reflects his current state of mind thus we have Gil’s inherent fear of death as well as his almost quixotic love for Paris in the 1920s. This yearning to live in another era, or as Gil terms it, “A golden age,” underlines much of the film and will surely touch a nerve in many audience members who dream of growing up in “better” times. Indeed the film seems to ask if those who are growing up in a certain time are even aware of the greatness around them or if they are merely blind to the present thus giving rise to the allure of the past. Gil certainly fits this scenario and because of this finds that he is unable to function properly in the present.
In addition, the quest for the meaning of true love gives the film an inherently fairy tale atmosphere that is more than bolstered by Owen Wilson’s exuberant performance. I have to say that Owen Wilson is probably not my first choice to play a lead in a Woody Allen film as his past work tends to be incredibly over the top but here he’s pitch perfect as the writer whose self-confidence level is hovering near zero but in a fresh take on things his Gil is not neurotic like most Allen heroes. Instead, Wilson imbues Gil with an almost supernatural enthusiasm as his face just lights up like a kid in a candy store whenever he finds himself in the 1920s. Wilson alone makes the film worth watching and kudos goes to him for pulling it off as anything less would have torpedoed the film as he’s in virtually every scene.
The supporting cast though is a mixed bag as many of the famous individuals from the 1920s have very little to work with thus they have to quickly define their characters based entirely on rote stereotypes. However, Marion Cotillard simply oozes charm whenever she’s on screen and together with Wilson creates a wholly believable pairing that is hard to resist.
Much like he has done in recent movies, Allen has left behind his “home” city of Manhattan and ventured out into the world this time landing in Paris, a city which holds great allure for any aspiring artist. In fact Allen opens the movie with almost five minutes worth of nothing but shots of famous Paris locations while the decidedly happy French accordion music plays on. Sure, it’s as cliché as blaring La Vie En Rose all over the soundtrack yet it fits in perfectly with the whimsical nature of the film.
At 94 minutes the film feels exactly the right length as there is virtually no fat as every scene goes towards building the narrative and character relationships although scenes involving the “other “ woman get progressively more grating as the film proceeds. That issue aside, in a summer that is full of robots pounding each other in the face or cowboys being probed by aliens, Midnight in Paris stands out as a thoroughly enjoyable adult romantic comedy. It might not win any Academy Awards but it certainly shows that even as he ages, Woody Allen still has a lot left in the tank.
***1/2 out of ****
2011, USA, 94 Minutes, PG-13, Sony Pictures Classics
Directed by Woody Allen
Written by Woody Allen
Producer Letty Aronson, Jaume Roures, Stephen Tenenbaum
Executive Producer Javier Méndez
Cinematography by Johanne Debas, Darius Khondji
Film Editing by Alisa Lepselter
Owen Wilson: Gil
Rachel McAdams: Inez
Marion Cotillard: Adriana
Kurt Fuller: John
Mimi Kennedy: Helen
Michael Sheen: Paul
Nina Arianda: Carol
Léa Seydoux: Gabrielle
Carla Bruni: Museum Guide
Adrien Brody: Salvador Dalí
Yves Heck: Cole Porter
Alison Pill: Zelda Fitzgerald
Corey Stoll: Ernest Hemingway
Tom Hiddleston: F. Scott Fitzgerald
Sonia Rolland: Joséphine Baker
© 2011 The Galactic Pillow