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There is a moment in the career of a great filmmaker when the definitive statement is made, the flowering of everything that has gone before it. Woody Allen makes comedies and tragedies. “Midnight in Paris” is a romantic comedy and a fantasy, but it draws on the best that Woody Allen has made in a feature film career stretching back over 45 years.
In the interest of full disclosure, your critic is an unabashed Woody Allen fan. However, he did with great regret pan “You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger” — it’s a turkey. Fair is fair.
But this sudden explosion of Allenist creativity starring Owen Wilson (of all people) as Gil, a successful Hollywood screenwriter who tries his hand at a novel, deserves all the encomium heaped on it and all the box office it has been getting. According to press reports it is Allen’s highest grossing pic ever, surpassing the 1986 “Hannah and Her Sisters.” It is also the first picture in which Owen Wilson has appeared wherein he has not annoyed your critic. Think of it as the polar opposite of “The Darjeeling Limited.” Kudos to Allen for coaxing an endearing performance from Wilson! Allen gets both writer and director credit.
Plot is simple. Gil and fiancée Inez (Rachel McAdams, one of America’s hottest Canadian imports), visit Paris with her parents, John (Kurt Fuller) and Helen (Mimi Kennedy). He’s a wealthy businessman in town for a deal. She’s an interior decorator. Inez is just righteous and spoiled. Gil is overwhelmed by Paris. The other three aren’t. They spend a good deal of their scenes with him insulting him to his face and the French to him. Enter Paul and Carol (Michael Sheen and Nina Arianda) as friends of Inez. He’s a professor full of himself. She’s there to move the plot along. Inez’s enthusiasm to socialize with them does not extend to Gil. He’d rather stroll the streets of Paris at night. Heck, there are plenty worse things to do at night — especially in Paris.
There must be magic in Paris. Allen captures it before the opening credits in a spectacular shot down the Avenue des Champs Elysée toward the Arc de Triomphe. Magic was present in Allen’s 1996 “Everyone Says I Love You” set in Paris but not to the extent it is here. As the bells toll midnight on a street in Montmartre, an ancient Peugeot sedanca de ville pulls up. Its passengers call out to Gil to enter. The car traverses not only the streets of Paris but also the decades, wafting Gil from 2010 back to about 1928. Gil finds himself at a party for Jean Cocteau where he meets Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald (Tom Hiddleston and Alison Pill), where Cole Porter (Yves Heck) croons his own tunes at the piano, and where, to get away from it, Scott & Zelda bring him to a club where Joséphine Baker (Sonia Rolland) performs. Wilson gets it across to auds that Gil can barely believe what he sees. Later, at a bar, he meets Ernest Hemingway, nearly channeled by Corey Stoll, who even speaks in literature. Think of a young Stacy Keach in the role. Hemingway refuses to read Gil’s novel about the owner of a nostalgia store but does offer to show it to Gertrude Stein, played with aplomb by Kathy Bates, who also gets to utter the sort of global statements on life and art that Martin S. Bergmann did with unadulterated nihlism in 1989’s “Crimes and Misdemeanors.” The difference is Allen’s outlook. It has become a good deal more positive and hopeful in the past quarter century. (One has to ask if the many bullets he ducked in that time had anything to do with his change of mind.) Along the way, Gil encounters people on the cutting edge of the arts in the era in which he wishes he lived: Pablo Picasso (Marcial Di Fonzo Bo), his mistress Adrianna (Marion Cotillard), photographer Man Ray (Tom Cordier), filmmaker Luis Buñuel (Adrien de Van), and Salvador Dali, who is pic’s second act of channeling played as flamboyantly as the original by Adrien Brody.
Midnight after midnight Gil waits on the winding Montmartre street for the Peugeot. And it arrives without fail. Eventually he gets tips on the novel from Stein, and even Hemingway reads a few chapters. The omens are good. Said novel is autobiographical in that the proprietor of the nostalgia shop is based on Gil, who wants to quit Hollywood and move to Paris, much against the wishes of Inez and her parents to indulge his wish to be close to Paris of the 1920s.
Hemingway’s only criticism is that it is implausible that the protagonist in the novel does not know that his fiancée is having an affair right under his nose. This is the impetus for Gil to confront Inez, who eventually admits to sleeping with Paul. If there is one thing apparent at pic’s outset it is that Gil and Inez are not a match made in Heaven. It’s a neat plot device delivered by Bates’ Stein which splits up the couple and leads to an unexpected dénouement.
Meanwhile there are glorious touches. “Midnight in Paris” has at least two Marshall McLuhan moments. In both Gil calls out Paul on his hot air. The second is priceless and is set up by a scene of Gil in Stein’s living room where she criticizes a painting of Adrianna by Picasso with the artist and the model present. Later, in the present day, at a private museum tour hosted by Paul, Gil shuts him down after he totally incorrectly identifies the model and Picasso’s intent in the very same painting that stood in Gertrude Stein’s living room. Scholars can refer to “Annie Hall.” The time travel device in which fantasy and reality intersect is a wonderful development of the theme from “The Purple Rose of Cairo.”
The writer’s block and the encounters with his idols are right out of “Deconstructing Harry,” in your critic’s opinion one of the greatest Woody Allen pics of all time, where a writer’s characters come to life, and “Play It Again, Sam.” Toward the final reel Gill suggests the premise for “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie” to Buñuel, arguably the latter’s definitive pic.
These touches are nirvana to the film buff.
But it is in Owen’s performance in a part that Allen, himself, would have played 20 years ago, as well as the musical score, where it all comes together. Owen conveys the angst, the neuroses, the indecision — all the annoying characteristics that defined Allen in so many of his comic roles — with a subtlety often missing from Allen’s own broad acting. Every now and then one gets a hint of the early Allen from Owen and wonders how Allen would have played the part if he were a younger man. It is a credit to Allen as a director that he could bring Wilson’s often typically over-the-top, Allen-esque performance (think of the Mayonnaise scene in “Hannah and her Sisters”) down to the point where it is both funny and sympathetic. Pic hinges largely on the relationship between Gil and Adriana. This is where time travel comes in handy. Gil stumbles over Adriana’s diary in a present day flea market. He buys it and asks a museum guide (French first lady Carla Bruni) to translate a few key passages. It’s almost an unfair peek into a girl’s mind, but your critic doesn’t know a straight guy who wouldn’t take advantage of it. It also leads to the scene where pic comes closest to slapstick. Pic’s publicity maintained that Bruni had only a walk-on, but her role is bigger than that and critical to its plot.
Adriana, who lives in the 1920s, pines for the belle époque of the 1890s. A horse drawn carriage takes the pair to Maxim’s (think “Gigi”) where Adriana encounters Toulouse Lautrec, Gauguin, and Degas. She decides to stay there, 30 years earlier. It’s the light bulb moment for Gil. He realizes that one’s present never measures up to one’s fantasy about the past and that if one could choose to live in the past, it would become one’s present, with all the ho-hum that it involves.
Anyone familiar with Allen’s choices for film scores knows of his fondness for early jazz. His pic’s employ it almost to the point of cliché. But in “Midnight in Paris” Allen has the vehicle that is not only time-period correct for his favorite music but also one in which his favorite music is crucial to the plot — especially the music of Cole Porter. Auds should keep a close eye on another actress whose role is about the same size as Carla Bruni’s. She’s Léa Seydoux as Gabrielle, a salesperson of old phonograph records and equipment. In a picture full of polar opposites, she is an opposite of the aimable sort.
“Midnight in Paris” benefits from superb writing, deft casting, spot-on performances by the major players, brilliant set design, fantastic lensing, and what may be the best direction of Allen’s career. It also has conversations in French and Spanish which are not subtitled. It is a credit to Allen and the cast (as well as the sound recording) that the absence of subtitles detracts nothing.
Pic is rated PG-13. It runs 94 minutes in keeping with Allen’s rule that a comedy should not exceed 100 minutes. There is nothing that will corrupt the kids, but given today’s culture, it is likely that a lot of it will fly over their heads.
—30—Midnight in Paris on Netflix