I haven’t cared much for Woody Allen since he decided to become a continental. Nothing against Europeans, it’s just that Woody Allen really isn’t one, no matter how hard he’s trying. He’s slowly been drifting eastwards, starting in London, then doing up Barcelona, and now he’s moved on to Paris. He still fills his films with social commentary and kvetching Americans, only now, they’re doing their bitching among scenic European backdrops. Allen’s got a skewed view of romance — and that’s not even taking into account his current marriage to the adoptive daughter of his estranged ex-girlfriend. (Soon-Yi and Woody have been together nearly 15 years. That’s almost how old she was when they met! Mazeltov!) His films are always filled with this caustic chemistry — lovers who seem to be lovers because they’re the two who happen to kiss on screen, otherwise embroiled in innocent little spats and disagreements. When I saw the trailer for Midnight in Paris, I figure I was doomed. Not only was it a Woody Allen film, but it featured one of my least favorite actors, Owen Wilson. I’ve explained my distaste for Wilson — he coasts on this McConabreeze of lackadaisical slackertude, whereas he’s virtually ubercharismatic when he lights that boyish glee from Bottle Rocket. On top of that, the film appeared to be about an American writer who magically wanders Paris at night and falls in love. That sentiment of Paris, J’Taime, of Paris being so romantic that characters magically fall in love, that “All You Need Is Love” treacle of Moulin Rouge, where people fall desperately in love because the Eiffel Tower is a giant metal wang wrapped in Christmas lights, seemed like such a lame conceit, the ultimate universal deus ex Francophile, that for Woody Allen to summon it was the final straw in his bullshit crumbling career. But Woody fooled my ass. While Midnight in Paris appeared to be some sort of faux romantic fairytale dreck, in reality, it became a writer’s parable about how nostalgia and wistful longing are bullshit. And while there is romance, and it is pretty lackluster, the film itself is more of “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court,” a time-travel fairy tale with a hilarious supporting cast. I was pleasantly deceived.
Gil (Owen Wilson) is a reluctant Hollywood screenwriter and a hopeless romantic who yearns for the Paris of The Twenties, who wants to live in a small loft and eat baguettes and write a great novel. He’s tagged-along to Paris with his fiancee Inez (Rachel McAdams) and her conservative, wealthy parents (Kurt Fuller and Mimi Kennedy) on the father’s business trip in order to embrace the city. Inez wants to shop and spend time with her former professor Paul (Michael Sheen), a bombastic know-it-all who constantly spews factoids to the point he argues with a tour guide (Carla Bruni). Gil can’t stand the pseudointellectualism and extravagance, and so one night, drunk from a wine-tasting, he wanders the streets to walk alone. While sitting on a lone staircase amid the chiming of the churchbells at midnight, an old-timey Peugeot from the 20’s rolls up and a gaggle of drunk Parisians entice him to come with them to a party.
The party seems full of men in suits and women in flapper regalia, people sipping champagne and dancing the Charleston. A man sits at a piano, suavely crooning Cole Porter tunes — until Gil realizes that it actually IS Cole Porter (Yves Heck). What progresses is a lovely sort of Zelig or Forrest Gumpian meeting of the great minds of the time through happenstance. Gil bumps into a blonde southern sasspot and her kind and courteous husband, who eventually introduce themselves as Zelda Fitzgerald (Alison Pill) and her husband Scott (Tom Hiddleston). Gil is overwhelmed to be surrounded by his idols — and Allen sagely breezes through the initial “you’re joking, you’re not” phase of all time-travel stories and settles into the pure joy and fun of having Gil meet with the veritable Justice League of Summer Reading Assignments. Gil quickly becomes embroiled in the Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates) salons through an introduction to a brooding and explosive Ernest Hemingway (Corey Stoll). In addition to some of his favorite writers, Gil meets up with famous painters as well, including Picasso, Matisse, and a hilarious discussion with the surrealists cohorts of Salvatore Dali (Adrian Brody).
Of course, Gil can only visit this world at midnight, and so he finds himself working diligently during the daylight hours on his novel to present it to his new Roaring Twenties compatriots when he gets magically whisked away at midnight by old-timey conveyance. Gil also must compete with his burgeoning affection for a mysterious muse he meets at Gertrude’s home, the lovely Adriana (Marion Cotillard). The weird comedy of errors situation is weak but essential — Midnight in Paris frames itself on romantic notions, and what would a romance be without romance, ne c/est pas? So what comes about is a moral tug-of-war, wanting to live and love this seemingly perfect enchantress — one who gained the love of both Picasso and Hemingway — or dealing with his catty and poorly named fiancee, Inez? To Gil’s credit, he’s not an unfeeling cad, so it’s at least a battle, but at times it feels like using the Gallic shrug to dispel the infidelity. Tis Paris, mon ami! Affairs come gratis with the beouf bourguignon.
While Rachel McAdams is a wonderful replacement for Scarlett Johanssen, and Kurt Fuller and Mimi Kennedy are brilliant as the grousing tea-bagger haves, it’s really in the Twenties where the film is extravagantly magical. Before I gush madly about the cartoonishly wondrous stereotypical twenties characters, I must spend at least a moment expressing my love for Michael Sheen. His elitist Paul is something to behold — the trailers can’t even capture how wonderfully arrogant and aggravating he truly is in the part. And his American accent’s pretty fucking boss too. I’m not as well versed on the non-American actors as I should be, so I’m probably leaving out properly being stunned as I should be, but virtually everyone who represents one of the famed figures plucked from history are cast and characterized perfectly. Alison Pill’s drunken sauciness, Tom Hiddleston’s properly coifed devotion, Marcial Di Fonzo Bo’s explosive passion as Picasso — they’re all maddeningly perfect. They drive the narrative, but still manage to generate these hilarious moments with Gil. Kathy Bates is terrific as Gertrude Stein, Adrian Brody is the best I’ve ever seen him in an actor that I think is stunningly talented as the fiery Dali, and Corey Stoll is phenomenally brooding and yet exuberant as Hemingway.
Owen Wilson must have been saving all of that energy from all his other slackluster roles to bring it here. Since every Woody Allen lead essentially plays Woody Allen, Wilson does an admirable job. He reigns in the nebbish, instead infusing Gil with a childlike energy. Even when he complains, it’s less grousing and more like a small kid bemoaning a 7:30 bedtime. It’s the infectious and charming Owen Wilson, and so you’re willing to ride with Gil through his magical time-travel adventures. The only failure in the film are the love interests. They have nothing to do, no fire of their own, save some mediocre attempts at plot driving. It’s hard to root for Gil to choose anyone: even his ultimate choice. Woody Allen’s love stories have always been cynical and pragmatic, but when you’re writing a capital-R romance, you can’t get away with that shit.
Paris becomes the ultimate star of Midnight in Paris, with a strangely appealing almost short film montage opening the film, and then several scenes that are so achingly poetic it’s like watching the Pageant of the Masters. Since Woody Allen does his famous medium shot dialogue tracking shots, when set amid the succulent beauty of a Parisian landmark, it just enhances everything that much more. Since leaving London, Allen’s scored himself an Oscar nomination — and I wouldn’t be shocked to see a few more from this darling little sleeper. Perhaps his eastward drift is going to be a boon. Logically, he’ll either go Scandinavian or perhaps Italian. Eventually he’ll settle into Asia, which seems to be where he’s most comfortable these days. So while you’re drinking in the explosive swords and cyberblasts of this summer, give yourself a chance to appreciate this quiet little gem. It’s a nice return to form for both Allen and Owen Wilson, and you’ll probably be as pleasantly surprised as I was.