Midnight in Paris--My Review
Woody Allens pays homage to the beauty of Paris
Midnight in Paris (Four Stars out of Five)
Woody Allen's 40th film is not only a love-letter to the city of Paris, it's also his best work in years. Allen's unique style of cerebral, insightful humor does not always go over well with mass audiences, but Allen doesn't write for the masses. He's an intellectual snob, and I mean that in a good way. Comedies for adults are rare these days, and Midnight in Paris was definitely not written for the typical teenage movie goer. This is a smart film, aimed at smart audience members.
The film opens with a loving, 5-minute montage of the city of Paris. Allen--who directs, as well as having written the film--makes Paris as much a character in the film as any of the actors. A viewer familiar with Allen's work will remember the similar way he once lovingly filmed New York, the city he grew up in, and used to love. Film's like Manhattan showed that no one could film New York as beautifully as Allen did. He's abandoned NY in recent years for European cities like London, Barcelona and Paris, but he hasn't forgotten how to photograph a city to make it seem like a living thing with it's own personality. Just the visuals alone make this a treat for the eyes.
The story follows Gil (Owen Wilson), a Hollywood screenwriter who gets paid very well for churning out the kind of generic trash that brings in the big bucks but says nothing. Gil, who is vacationing in Paris with his shallow but pretty wife Inez (Rachel McAdams) and her parents, is having a life crisis, as most Woody Allen protagonists do. Gil realizes he's wasting his talent writing hack scripts and dreams of moving permanently to France to be a struggling novelist, just as his literary idols of the past had done. Inez and her parents do not support this decision and insist that Gil keep his lucrative job as a studio script writer. Inez just doesn't understand Gil at all. She doesn't get why he waxes rhapsodic about the beauty of Paris in the rain. She just wants to sight-see and shop. She is, however, quite taken by the pedantic Paul (Michael Sheen), a faux-intellectual, know-it-all, blowhard who loves the sound of his own voice and likes to pontificate at length on anything and everything. Gil can't stand Paul and so goes off on his own to wander the streets of Paris at midnight. He is unexpectedly summoned by the occupants of a 1920s Edwardian Roadster, who offer him a ride. Gil impulsively accepts the ride in the strange vehicle, which taxis him back through time.
Gil suddenly finds himself back in Jazz Age Paris, when a plethora of greats writers, artists and musicans from all over the world converged on the clubs, cafes and bistros of 1920s France to compare, compete and complain about their art. Gil is amazed to meet the likes of F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald (Tom Hiddleston and Alison Pill), Cole Porter (Yves Heck), Alice B. Toklas (Therese Bourou Rubinsztein), Luis Bunuel (Adrien de Van) and many others. He gets writing advice from the motherly Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates) and hears lots of manly speeches about courage and honor from the mucho-macho Ernest Hemingway (well played by Cory Stoll) who is always looking for either sex or a good fight.
As Gil is driven back-and-forth between the roaring twenties and 2011, he finds himself growing more and more discontent with his marriage to nagging Inez and his job as a writer of mindless film scripts. He grows more attached to the past, especially when he meets beautiful Adriana (portrayed by the winsome and sexy Marion Cotillard), a model who's been the mistress for many of the great painters of the day and his now fooling around with Pablo Picasso (Marcial de Fonzo Bo). Gil is instantly drawn to Adriana, but she is not only involved with Picasso, she is also sought after by Hemingway. Plus, Gil is still married to Inez in the future. (Does it count as cheating if his wife isn't even born yet?)
Owen Wilson serves as the latest stand-in for Woody Allen, because Allen knows he's too old to be playing these lead romantic roles himself, but still writes the part of the main character as if he were going to star. (Kenneth Branagh and Will Farrell, among others, have stood in for Allen in the past. John Cusack in Bullets over Broadway was the best of the Allen substitutes.) Wilson's laid-back performance is effective because it contrasts with the over-the-top personalities he's surrounded by.
The supporting cast is well-chosen and most of them look like the artists they are playing. Stoll is particularly good as Hemmingway, and Adrian Brody has a scene-stealing role as Salvador Dali. Marion Cotillard is ideally cast as the much-desired Adriana. She brings a sweetness to her "sexual volcano" character.
Allen doesn't talk down to his audience, nor does he feel the need to explain who these characters are. He name-drops dozens of artistic types, and you'll need to be very artistically knowledgeable and well-read to catch all the references and inside-jokes. It's a relief to find a filmmaker who assumes that his audience is intelligent, rather than following the usual Hollywood habit of dumbing-down the script. (Gil's complaints about writing for the big studios echos Allen's own beliefs about Hollywood today.)
Midnight in Paris has charm, and will keep intellectual viewers interested, but it isn't nearly as funny as some of Allen's past work. There are a few good laughs but the film mostly provides chuckles. Judged only as a comedy, Midnight in Paris isn't the kind of laugh-out-loud joy that Annie Hall or Hannah and Her Sisters were. But this film isn't just a comedy. It works on many levels--As a homage to great artists; as a travelogue of Paris; and as a commentary that discontented artists of any century will always be restless and seeking answers, often by looking to the past.