Review: Midnight In Paris (2011)

Director: Woody Allen

***

Owen Wilson sounds like the most unlikely stand-in for Woody Allen that you could imagine, yet that’s essentially what he is in Midnight In Paris, Allen’s latest tale of a strangely wealthy and artistic nerd with a ridiculously gorgeous girlfriend, and whose travails reveal something about said nerd to himself. If this is just too rote, remember that the last time Allen deviated from that formula significantly gave us Cassandra’s Dream, so don’t knock it.

Wilson’s Gil is the nerd, Rachel McAdams’ Inez is the hot fiancée, and they’re on holiday in gaye Paree. Gil is frustrated, both by his unsatisfying career as a screenwriter and his in-the-works novel, plus the fact that Inez runs into an old flame (Michael Sheen’s Paul), a preening intellectual gasbag. This intellectual inadequacy is Allen’s bread and butter, but his efforts to combine it with scatalogical humour and plots have been his undoing in recent years (Match Point, Scoop). However, this is Allen indulging the artist’s fantasy, as Gil contemplates moving to Paris after he and Inez marry. She and her parents (Kurt Fuller and Mimi Kennedy) laugh off the thought, but Gil is encouraged when he meets a 1920s style car on a street at midnight, hops in and is transported back to Paris of that era, l’Age d’Or. Yes, it sounds silly, and it ought to be silly, but it must be remembered that Allen is indulging his dream. Gil is enraptured when he starts meeting his heroes, including Scott and Zelda FitzGerald (Tom Hiddleston and Alison Pill), Ernest Hemmingway (Corey Stoll) and Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates). The transitions from present to past and back to the present are never explained, but Allen doesn’t feel that’s necessary. This is the Paris of wonders, which inspired great artists such as Picasso (Marcial Di Fonzo Bo) and Dali (Adrien Brody). However, this does lead to a clear distinction between scenes set in the past and the present. The present scenes are not particularly interesting because the characters that populate them aren’t either; the likes of Inez and Paul are just cyphers, excuses for Gil to immerse himself more in the past. Whenever we see friendly flapper Adrianna (Marion Cotillard) smile, the already-bright parlours of 1920s Paris are bathed in her glow. Despite this split, Allen’s gift for sparky dialogue and wit is ever present.

Wilson makes for an affable Allen substitute, but the greatest thrill of Midnight In Paris is seeing artistic and literary figures crop up in Gil’s time trip/fantasy/whatever. The jokes are knowing (Gil giving Luis Buñuel (Adrien de Van) the idea for Exterminating Angel, for example) but delivered with an artful enthusiasm that’s hard to dispel. It’s uneven, it isn’t particularly deep and it does reduce the likes of Carla Bruni and Léa Seydoux to bit parts, but Midnight In Paris is Allen’s most enjoyable film in over a decade. Many would argue that’s not a hard feat, but if you find yourself still yearning for the Woody of old, we’ll always have Manhattan.

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