A film by Woody Allen
Review by Thomas W. Campbell
Originally published on June 10, 2011 on the website of The National Board of Review
Midnight in Paris, Woody Allen’s best film since 2008’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona, was shot on a modest 30 million dollar budget and gets every cent of filmmaking value from the Paris locations and smart production design. The film opens with a song-length montage of Paris in the day, in the rain, at sunset, and in the evening. It is a beautiful and carefully constructed sequence of short iconic shots seemingly using every conceivable objective view of the city. As we move across the urban Paris landscape, a Sidney Bechet New Orleans-tinged jazz song plays in its entirety. The sequence announces two things that we can expect from the film—lots of Paris and a heavy sampling of early American jazz. With a soundtrack that features the music of Cole Porter, The Glenn Miller Orchestra, Josephine Baker, the Charleston, and the Can-Can, Allen has again demonstrated his ability to mine the history of his favorite American Music to better tell his stories.
Allen has become one of New York’s most international storytellers and in Midnight in Paris the subject (a confused writer) and setting (Paris then and now) converge wonderfully. Although Owen Wilson as Gil, the Woody Allen persona in the film, is an odd casting choice he is likable and makes the role work. Wilson is not a method actor—his acting style can best be described as wide-eyed wonder or small-eyed sadness. At this stage of his career he is a good actor who is at his best when basically playing himself, for instance in his numerous collaborations with Wes Anderson (The Royal Tenenbaums, etc.). He bumbles in a different way than Allen does. Wilson uses confusion in a slow and deliberate way, as though he will understand something if just given enough time. Allen is too nervous for calm contemplation—his first instinct is anxiety-releasing chatter.
Where the personas of Allen and Wilson connect is as writers. Wilson plays a Hollywood screenwriter who is kind of a child—he longs for the “authenticity” that he would get from writing literature, not the endless movie rewrites that so amply pays his bills. He arrives in Paris with Inez (Rachel McAdams), his Hollywood soon-to-be trophy wife and her parents (John Fuller and Mimi Kennedy). The set-up is so Woody Allen that the actors don’t have to do much to make it work. Father is an archconservative with a heart condition; mom is hardly convinced that Gil is right for her daughter (“cheap is cheap” she likes to remind Inez). Fuller and Kennedy play their roles with just the right amount of contempt and suspicion, elevating the potentially clichéd into memorable and funny characters. Inez only wants to settle into the fertile Hollywood hills and Rachel McAdams gets this part of her character right, but too often she seems to miss beats or looks disconnected in a way that doesn’t add to the success of the scene. The humor is that Gil can’t see his wife’s dripping disdain for him. “Well, we both like Indian food”, he explains trying to justify their relationship. “Maybe not the same food. But we both like pita bread.”
The main antagonist in the story is Paul, and old friend of Inez’s who is in Paris to do some lecturing. His academic know-everything approach to all things Paris is a continued rub in the eye of Gil, who is after a more poetic connection to the city. In a similar way to the obnoxious man in line at the movies scene in Annie Hall (the man is finally confronted and exposed by Marshall McLuhan, the very person he is pontificating about), we wait for Paul to get his comeuppance. That we, as the audience, are the only ones who understand when it finally happens makes it just as sweet.
The unexpected twist of Midnight in Paris is that it becomes Woody Allen’s take on a Twilight Zone story—but without the part where the main character must suffer forever because of his own limitations (blindness, greed, selfishness, etc.). In Allen’s tale Gil is working on a novel that takes place in a “nostalgia shop”—the kind of store where artifacts are imbued with cultural and financial value. Gil is smitten by Paris, he longs to walk in the rain (his wife refuses) and dreams of living the simple life of a literary writer on the boulevards and in the cafes of Paris. But his dreams seem about to be dashed by the impending marriage that will bring him back to Hollywood. Gil at heart is a romantic, and he longs for his vision of the golden age of Paris and the literary era of the 1920’s.
Paul, the interloper, tells Gil that nostalgia is denial. “Golden age” thinking is the erroneous notion that a different time period is better and that this represents his own difficulty in coping with the present. Ironically these are very truths that Gil will learn by the end of the film, and even attempt to pass on to a fellow traveller.
After an unpleasant rooftop party in which he drinks too much Gil begs off a dance date, allowing his wife to go with Paul while Gil takes a midnight stroll into the heart of Paris. Is it the wine? Is it a writer’s fantasy? Or is there something more magical at work? Whatever the explanation (it doesn’t really matter) Gil finds himself transported into an ideal world of the past where he is immediately at home and gets to associate—and become friends with—his literary and artistic heroes. Reminiscent of the character (also named Gil) played by Jeff Daniels in Allen’s earlier Purple Rose of Cairo, Wilson’s Gil is inexplicably able to move through time and space and to encounter a life he never imagined. Part of the immense pleasure of Midnight in Paris is the slow reveal regarding the historical figures that are part of Gil’s adventure. While leaving plenty of surprise to the viewer I’ll point out that Corey Stoll is dead-on as tough guy Ernest Hemingway (memorably equating sex and fear of death) and that Alison Pill and Tom Hiddleston do a great version of Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald. Although there are no “Back to the Future” moments in Allen’s time traveling plot he can’t help but have a little fun with Luis Buñuel. Meeting the surrealist filmmaker a second time Gil recites the bizarre plot of Buñuel’s 1962 film The Exterminating Angel—and is met with complete confusion as the filmmaker doesn’t “get it”.
The emotional turning point of the story comes when Gil meets the beautiful and mysterious Adriana, former lover of Modigliani, lover of Picasso and object of Hemingway’s affections. “You take art groupie to a whole new level,” he tells her with real admiration. Gil’s interests shift from literary to romantic in a single edit—Adriena, rendered playfully and with charm by Marion Cotillard, is the opposite of his fiancé in almost every way; black hair to blonde, relaxed to stress inducing, sympathetic to demanding. As the film moves between Gil’s midnight adventures and his daytime family conflicts the past becomes more and more appealing—the inviting set design of Gertrude Steins salon, the densely packed Left Bank jazz clubs, airy cafes where Hemingway and his literary crowd hold court—are all constructed with love and historical accuracy. When the plot takes us to turn-of the century Paris (La Belle Époque), the visual design becomes even more colorful and interesting—horse-drawn carriages, fully tuxedoed dinners at Maxim’s, leggy can-can dancers in multi-layered skirts, Toulouse-Lautrec and his entourage.
Though the romance of the past leaves fewer and fewer reasons to return to the present, Gil manages to make a few important connections when he is being dragged around on shopping expeditions. He meets a French girl in a flea market who shares his passion for Cole Porter and a museum guide who is invaluable in translating an old diary written over 80 years ago by Adriana. Gil’s ability to appreciate life slowly develops as he goes deeper into his adventure—and into himself.
Midnight in Paris begins as a slight comedy of manners then slips into a fantasy (real or imagined) that is warm, witty and romantically entertaining. Gil makes discoveries about himself, which can only come from experience. He’s the kind of guy who dreams of sharing a walk in the Paris rain with someone who cares—but just can’t manage to find that person. If you’ve seen Midnight in Paris you know whether he finally gets his wish. If you haven’t seen the film you should know that getting his wish (or not) is a question well worth exploring.