A film review by Craig J. Koban June 22, 2011
MIDNIGHT IN PARIS
2011, PG-13, 91 mins.
2011, PG-13, 91 mins.
Gil: Owen Wilson / Inez: Rachel McAdams / Gert: Kathy Bates
/ Salvador: Adrien Brody / Guide: Carla Bruni / Adriana: Marion
MIDNIGHT IN PARIS, Woody Allen’s 41st film during his 75 years – is one that intriguingly bathes in nostalgia while simultaneously criticizing it.
It has the veneer of being
mightily steeped in romanticism, but Allen is far too shrewd and tactful
for that sort of one-sighted discourse. MIDNIGHT IN PARIS firmly acknowledges the writer/director’s
infectious love for all things Parisian, to be sure, but he maintains an
undercurrent that also recognizes that even the most authentic expression
of romanticism is sometimes tainted by disappointment. In short: nostalgia is positive and detrimental...tantalizing
and unsavory. Crucially,
MIDNIGHT IN PARIS touches on one cornerstone that encompasses our shared
human existence: everything we perceive as being great and better from the
past clouds our vision of the beauty before us in the present.
Allen is one of the great,
legendary filmmakers, but you may not know it if only exposed to his most
recent work, which has been inconsistent at best.
His masterful films have come and gone, even though many thought
that 2005’s MATCH POINT was a
return to form for him (I thought it was just Allen riffing on himself: it
was CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS 2.0). I
preferred 2004’s MELINDA AND
MELINDA, one of his chronically overlooked dramedies as well as VICKY
CHRISTINA BARCELONA. WHATEVER WORKS was a
generally decent Allen film of old, albeit a bit derivative of many of his
past efforts. As much fondness as I had for those last three films, efforts like
SCOOP and CASSANDRA’S DREAM stunted my enthusiasm and belief that a
great Allen film comeback is to be made.
I think, though, we have it
with MIDNIGHT IN PARIS, which is not only Allen’s best film in years,
but also his most sublimely original and intoxicating since 1996’s
EVERYONE SAYS I LOVE YOU. Having long since exhausted his focus on Manhattan locales and
characters, not to mention a brief detour in London and Barcelona in his
last films, Allen continues his sumptuously realized tour of Europe by
landing in Paris. Through the
assistance of Darius Khondji’s evocative and gorgeously minimalist
cinematography, which bathes the film in the tranquil cultural, social,
and geographical pleasures of the French city, Allen shows now, more than
ever, how using Europe as his new muse of sorts has rejuvenated his
career. Aside from being an
exquisite travelogue picture, we still get staple Allen elements of old
homogenized with a sophisticated, whimsical, philosophical, and innovative
premise that makes you think as often as you uproariously laugh.
consider MIDNIGHT IN PARIS’ opening, which begins without dialogue,
without introduction to the main characters, and without any discernable
plotting: All we have is a lush
and loving observation of Paris itself as a backdrop of dreams.
Allen slowly and casually observes this city as an entity in motion
and one that has an indescribable vivacity.
Whether it is basked in sunlight or drench in a stormy downpour,
Allen relays to us a Paris that is cherished and revered in its splendor
no matter what time of day or setting.
It’s one of the most effectively simplistic, graceful and poignant
openings of any film from 2011.
From here we are introduced to
Gil (Owen Wilson) and Inez (Rachel McAdams) that are in the middle of a
pre-wedding excursion through Paris.
Clearly, something is off between the pair right from the get-go:
he is deeply unsatisfied being a wealthy, successful, and inanely overpaid
movie screenwriter fixing scripts that he feels are beneath him.
What he yearns for is the fantasy of a bohemian lifestyle in Paris
that would help him complete his dream novel project.
Inez, on the other hand, thinks that the idealistic Gil’s dreams
are silly and getting in the way of her materialistic happiness. Gil likes the smaller and subtler accoutrements of Parisian
city life, whereas Inez only wants to live a big, sprawling, and noisy urban
lifestyle back home in America. These
two are just…hopelessly incompatible.
One night changes everything
for Gil: Instead of going out dancing and partying with Inez and some of
her uptight and “pedantic” intellectual friends
(always solid targets for Allen's scathing satiric slaughter)
Gil decides to aimlessly wander the streets and drink in the sights.
Just as a nearby church clock tower strikes midnight an old Peugeot
pulls up filled with partiers. They
invite him into their vehicle; initially Gil politely declines, but the
friendly smiles and gestures from the strangers entice him in.
When the car gets to its destination Gil finds himself at a
gathering that seems…uh…a bit off and out of his element, but he
enjoys the atmosphere nonetheless.
Then he meets F. Scott Fitzgerald (Tom Hiddleston), who looks
suspiciously like, yeah, that one. Then
he meets an outgoing, opinionated, and verbose man named Ernest Hemmingway
(Carey Stoll) along with Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates), and Picasso among others.
Realizing that these are no mere coincidences – and judging by the
period decor all around him - Gil astonishingly puts two and two together.
At dawn he returns to the stuffiness of the present, but every
midnight he is drawn back to the same Church where the old
roadster picks him up for more trips back to the past.
Yes, MIDNIGHT IN PARIS has
time travel, but Allen wisely never goes out of his way to explain any of
the particulars. The
importance here is that – like any romantic and escapist fairy tale –
you are just supposed to suspend disbelief and simply go with it.
Explaining precisely how Gil manages to be transported to the
1920’s every night would have been as foolhardy as it would have been
redundant. The temporal warp
that leaps Gil back to the past and eventually back to the present
just…happens, and it becomes such an appealingly offbeat conceit
(especially for an Allen film) that the pleasure of seeing Gil exuberantly
and giddily enjoy himself with each new visit is a delight.
Of course, he initially thinks he’s going mad, but the more
artistic and literary idols from the past he comes in contact with, the
more childlike awe comes over him. You know the ageless question, “If you could have dinner
with anyone from the past, who would it be?”…well…imagine if you
could do just that, but with multiple figures you hold in high esteem. Picture that and you’ll understand Gil’s elation all
through the film.
A lot of funny things happen
on Gil’s travels, and I’ll try not to spoil too many of them.
He hooks up with Gertrude Stein and pleads with her to read his
manuscript, which she does and later calls it an interesting bit of science fiction
(remember: it was written in the 2000’s).
He also has many delightful exchanges with Hemmingway, who frankly
tells him that he'll hate his book if he reads it, because he'll either like it
and hate the author because of it or he'll hate because it's junk.
Gil also comes across a very, very weird Salvador Dali (the
spirited Adrien Brody) and has, for my money, the most hysterical
conversation with Luis Bunuel: he gives Bunuel an idea for a film that
involves people sharing dinner and then, in the end, they can’t escape
the house. Bunuel amusingly
deadpans that it makes no sense at all.
Gil’s most stimulating
person of interest in the past is the ravishing Adriana (Marion Cotillard)
who has had flings with both Picasso and Hemmingway and now seems drawn to
Gil. Gil is also instantly
smitten with Adriana, and considering that she is played by Cotillard, one
of the most inviting and beautiful screen presences of the movies, its not
that shocking. Gil finds her
limitlessly attractive, but perhaps he is also in love with the time
period she exists in. During
one fateful day both of them find themselves warped back into the past
(pre-1920’s), during which she becomes so enraptured in that she decides
that she does not want to return
to the 20’s. Gil, however,
thinks the 20’s were the height of Parisian cultural sophistication and
enlightenment, whereas Adriana thinks its was the late 1800’s and turn
of the Century. What happens
is one of the oddest lover’s quarrels I’ve ever seen in a movie.
Yet, scenes like these reflect
the film’s themes of how one’s love of the past unhealthily overrides
all other emotional imperatives, and it’s noteworthy how exceedingly
well Allen fuses that with the inherent offbeat, fish-out-of-water comedy of the
None of the this, though, would work as well if it were not for the
casting of Owen Wilson, who perhaps is the finest Allen-replacement Allen
has had in a film. Gil is the
type of awkward, semi-neurotic, opinionated, and, yes, romantic minded
protagonist that Allen has been writing and playing for decades.
Wilson takes the Allen persona a little deeper: he has to suggest a
person that is ultimately sincere, polite, and passionate that tip-toes
through insanity (after all, he’s time traveling and does not know how
or why) but he also has to evoke a deep, wide-eyed euphoria for all of the
legendary figures he comes across. Wilson
has never been more effortlessly assured, amiable, and winning in a film.
MIDNIGHT IN PARIS has a few minor hiccups, like how Rachel McAdams’ character is essentially a fairly one-dimensional snob (granted, it’s refreshing to see the radiant actress play such an dislikable and self-absorbed twit) and Inez's parents and friends are equally one-note as preening, paranoid, and overly pretentious windbags. Those are very inconsequential nitpicks in an otherwise resoundingly strong return to form for Allen. MIDNIGHT IN PARIS has the requisite snappy and sharp dialogue, concise pacing, low-key direction, sexual triangulations, pathos and laughs, and so forth that Allen-aficionados have come to cherish. But the film also finds a uniquely inventive premise to place all of those elements in while touching on contemplative themes that are easily relatable. It’s ironic, but for a film that challenges the notions of romanticism and nostalgia, MIDNIGHT IN PARIS makes us hungrily recall and swoon for the classic Allen films of yesteryear, and that’s what makes it his most secure and sound directorial effort in nearly 20 years.