Midnight in Paris
by Warren Curry
In the interest of providing context to this review, let me state that I haven’t made a habit of seeing every recent Woody Allen movie. Allen’s work rate is absolutely commendable, still cranking out one feature film per year at age 75, but the quality of his output isn’t always as impressive. He’s shown the ability to knock it out of the park on occasion (”Match Point”), but most of his 21st century work — or at least the films I’ve seen — falls into the category of pleasant diversion. “Midnight in Paris” fits that description.
Though it’s slight and arguably lacking the ambition to really be a great film, Allen’s latest is enjoyable in all of his usual ways. The clever dialogue and witty exchanges between characters will always possess a certain charm, and, perhaps most importantly, he gets a very nice performance from Owen Wilson in the “Woody Allen” role. Wilson doesn’t just do an Allen imitation, rather he brings his own recognizable laidback demeanor to the part, and it works well. Wilson’s character, Gil, is so sincere and likable that it infects the entire movie.
“Midnight in Paris” is many things — it’s the filmmaker’s cinematic love letter to the title city, a story with a message about appreciating the present day and further proof that big name actors will perhaps always line up to work with Allen. Not many directors can get an Oscar winner (Adrien Brody) to sport a ridiculous accent in a fairly insignificant role with limited screen time. Then again, Brody does have the honor of playing Salvador Dalí…
Dalí is just one of many artistic luminaries to appear as a character in this film about an unfulfilled Hollywood screenwriter’s magical discovery in the City of Lights. Gil, whose real creative passion lies in completing his long unfinished novel, is on vacation in Paris with his fiancé, Inez (Rachel McAdams), a demanding woman who appears to be far from the man’s ideal match, and her disapproving parents (Mimi Kennedy and Kurt Fuller). To make matters more difficult, the couple unexpectedly runs into old “friends,” the married couple Paul (Michael Sheen) and Carol (Nina Arianda), and it becomes quickly apparent Inez hasn’t completely gotten over her college crush on Paul, an irksome know-it-all.
Inez is busy fawning all over the arrogant Paul, so Gil decides one night to take a solo, semi-drunken late night stroll. While shaking off the effects of alcohol, a pristine classic car comes across Gil, and though initially reluctant, he accepts the invitation of the people inside and soon is on his way to an adventure like no other. In a matter of minutes, he’s not only in Paris, but the Paris of the 1920s, a time and place he adores to the point that he wishes to be transported there. Over the course of the next several nights, his wish is continually granted.
From Hemingway to Bunuel to Gertrude Stein, Gil finds himself hobnobbing with a variety of iconic figures. He’s also smitten with an alluring, exciting woman named Adriana (Marion Cotillard) who returns his affectionate feelings. Gil’s time travel experiences invigorate the man and give him the confidence to finish his novel, and the less time he spends with Inez, the clearer it becomes that she doesn’t fit the role of his life partner. Aside from the big plot twist, there aren’t many developments you can’t see coming from a mile away (including the ultimate message), but despite being so telegraphed, Allen still manages to push the right buttons. The pacing is superb, as the film’s 94 minutes rush by in what feels like half the time.
Gil’s interaction with his various heroes is amusing and so are his less amicable dealings with those who surround him in the present day. Michael Sheen makes Paul more ridiculous than unbearable, and it’s too bad Allen didn’t decide to include more of him in the film’s second half, which could’ve opened up a number of comedic opportunities. Rachel McAdams’s Inez is a somewhat underwritten character, though there’s no mistaking that a marriage between her and Paul would be doomed to failure.
Well over 40 years into his feature directorial career, Woody Allen’s work is predictable, but the same could be said about any number of filmmakers with extensive résumés. “Midnight in Paris” shows that a creative formula isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and while I may not consider the film essential viewing, it can definitely still be a joy to watch Allen ply his craft.
Midnight in Paris (USA/2011)
Director: Woody Allen
Cast: Owen Wilson, Rachel McAdams, Michael Sheen, Marion Cotillard
Rated PG-13, 94 minutes
(Sony Pictures Classics. Opens in New York and Los Angeles on May 20, 2011. Expands to more cities on May 27.)