Midnight in Paris ****
Directed by: Woody Allen.
Written by: Woody Allen.
Starring: Owen Wilson (Gil), Rachel McAdams (Inez), Kurt Fuller (John), Mimi Kennedy (Helen), Michael Sheen (Paul), Nina Arianda (Carol), Carla Bruni (Museum Guide), Yves Heck (Cole Porter), Alison Pill (Zelda Fitzgerald), Corey Stoll (Ernest Hemingway), Tom Hiddleston (F. Scott Fitzgerald), Sonia Rolland (Joséphine Baker), Daniel Lundh (Juan Belmonte), Thérèse Bourou-Rubinsztein (Alice B. Toklas), Kathy Bates (Gertrude Stein), Marcial Di Fonzo Bo (Pablo Picasso), Marion Cotillard (Adriana), Léa Seydoux (Gabrielle), Emmanuelle Uzan (Djuna Barnes), Adrien Brody (Salvador Dalí), Tom Cordier (Man Ray), Adrien de Van (Luis Buñuel), David Lowe (T.S. Eliot), Yves-Antoine Spoto (Henri Matisse), Laurent Claret (Leo Stein), Vincent Menjou Cortes (Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec), Olivier Rabourdin (Paul Gauguin), François Rostain (Edgar Degas).
For most of its running time, Midnight in Paris is a delightful comic fantasy. A lot of this has to do with Owen Wilson, who is great as the Woody surrogate in this film. Unlike actors like Kenneth Branagh, Sean Penn or Will Ferrell, who have essentially tried to do Allen impressions to varying degrees of success in the past, Wilson, doesn’t attempt that, and instead plays his role with the same goofy charm he always brings to his role. Here, it makes sense. He is not as cynical as other Allen characters. In fact, he seems downright sincere, even when he’s insulting the Tea Party right to his future father in law’s face – a man who admires them. He seems genuinely amazed when he walks into the 1920s Paris, but he accepts it openly as an opportunity to live his dream – to escape from his own reality, which he doesn’t much like. The scenes of him in modern Paris are wonderfully comic – with Gil suffering through shopping trips with his materialistic fiancée Inez (Rachel McAdams) and her mother, or suffering even more on trips to museums, in which a friend of Inez’s, Paul (Michael Sheen), feels the need to lecture about every piece of art they come across – even if he’s wrong. The scenes in the 1920s are even funnier. I loved Corey Stoll as Hemingway, giving terse, clipped lectures on love, beauty, honesty, violence and war – and then asking “Who wants to fight?”, or Alison Pill’s loopy performance as Zelda Fitzgerald, or Adrian Brody in a cameo as Salvador Dali who cannot stop talking about rhinoceros or Kathy Bates, warm and open as Gertrude Stein. I may not have known every person he comes across in Paris, but I knew enough of them to enjoy the movie. And Marion Cotillard, one of the most beautiful women in the world, is just about perfect as the muse for seemingly everyone in Paris – including finally Gil himself.
But this is a movie that sneaks up on you a little – much like The Purple Rose of Cairo did. That film was such a pleasure to watch, I didn’t quite realize just how complex it was until after it was over – how serious the message and theme of the movie was underneath all the delightful comedy on display. Midnight in Paris is similar in that respect, although I think Allen is this time around, a little too explicit in explaining his message in the final reel. It was clear enough without the speeches.
And yet, that is really the only thing I can complain about in Midnight in Paris, which overall was the most enjoyable trip to the movies I have had so far this year. I loved how Allen didn’t even try to explain why Gil is transported back in time – it doesn’t matter, and any explanation would have seemed silly. Instead, he simply embraces his concept. The opening sequence in the film will undoubtedly bring to my Allen’s best film, Manhattan, which opened with the most romantic view of Manhattan ever put on film, under Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, and Allen’s own voiceover. This time, there is no voiceover, and the images are of Paris, and yet while Allen could have made this sequence as dreamily romantic as Manhattan, he doesn’t. The famous Parisian landmarks seem somewhat empty – as if they are waiting for people to fill them. That ultimately may be the purpose of Midnight in Paris – it doesn’t really matter where you are, either in the world or in time – because it is ultimately you and not anything else that determines how happy you are. That Allen is able to get this point across in a movie that is so thoroughly enjoyable from beginning to end is what makes this his best films in years.