Warning: This review contains mild plot spoilers.
Nostalgia is both the curse and the luxury of the living; it poisons the present to falsely idealize the past. So says Woody Allen, a filmmaker uniquely suited to make that case, with his new film, Midnight in Paris. It's precisely Allen's storied past work that has allowed him to make a movie a year for the last few decades or so, even through financial and critical busts that would have long ago ended the careers of directors with less trade-in capital. But it's also the memory of his golden era - Annie Hall, Manhattan, Hannah and Her Sisters, for example - that makes him a target for dismissive cinéastes. Like Bob Dylan, Woody Allen exists because of and in spite of his previous triumphs.
Allen's stand-in for this revelation is Owen Wilson, whose casting is the film's greatest asset: Wilson's permanently baffled and bemused facial expression is a living embodiment of fresh clarity. He plays Gil, a self-described "Hollywood hack" who has written his first novel and is staying in Paris for a brief time with his fiancee, Inez (Rachel McAdams) on a pre-wedding vacation/prep meeting. Inez's laser focus - on what, it's not entirely clear, though shopping is a big part of her mission - necessitates her presence in a million places at once, leaving Gil largely on his own to explore his inspiration.
That leads to a drunken stumble into an antique carriage of sorts as the clock strikes midnight in a back alley of Paris. Inside, he finds F. Scott Fitzgerald and his wife, Zelda. Not look-alikes or kooks, but apparently the real deal. They take Gil with them to countless bars around the city, all of which are stocked with the cultural ex-pats of the time: Ernest Hemingway, Cole Porter, Pablo Picasso, Jean Cocteau - the list goes on and on.
Gil can't believe his luck, and capitalizes on it quickly by handing his novel to Gertrude Stein for critique. Along the way, he falls in lust with Picasso's mistress, Adriana (Marion Cotillard), who yearns to live in an earlier time, say, the Belle Époque. In fact, none of these literary giants seem to be very pleased with their own legendary place and time. Nobody appreciates the present, even when that present is a time bomb of significance.
Midnight in Paris is light, quick and pleasant, the kind of movie that boomers, their parents and their kids will eat up like cheese fondue. But there's a palpable sense of broad, freshman-level pandering involved in that multi-quadrant pleasantness that lingers in the mouth well after the lights go up. Woody Allen is more culturally intelligent than I will ever be, yet I found myself begrudgingly snobbish about a lot of the inside jokes. That's not a state I like to be put in at the movies, but I felt as if Allen's willful fluffiness made it so. He writes these artistic ghosts as one-note caricatures in a way that his wonderfully literate essays never sink to. (See: the imagined conversation between the poet Agathon and Allen himself in his book Side Effects.) Hemingway talks briskly of facing death head-on and shooting a lion; Salvador Dalí just likes saying his last name dramatically; Tom Hiddleston's Fitzgerald is blandly intense and does little more than feel conflicted about Zelda. Large portions of Midnight in Paris reminded me more of A Night at the Museum than The Purple Rose of Cairo. (Though an aside about surrealism may be the best line of dialogue I've heard this year.)
Still, it's hard to throw dirt on such a well-founded screenplay that finds its life through charming atmosphere and a strong point of view. It's a good look on Woody, and one I'm sure will doom him on his next few films.
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