If you thought Woody Allen waxed poetic about New York City on film, wait until you settle into your seat to see Midnight in Paris.
Allen’s latest effort, hastily dubbed a return to form by his gooey admirers, is a love letter to the City of Light. It also sees fit to mock Republicans, tea partiers, and anyone who thinks having a mistress might be unethical.
Watching a new Allen movie is akin to seeing the artist’s psyche laid bare. We know too much about the off-screen Allen, from his morally repugnant romance with then-girlfriend Mia Farrow’s adopted daughter to his support for admitted child rapist Roman Polanski.
It puts his movies in a less flattering light. And, frankly, Allen’s current projects can’t measure up to his older, better films.
In Midnight in Paris, Owen Wilson plays a flustered screenwriter named Gil visiting Paris with his fiancee, Inez (Rachel McAdams).
Gil is entranced by everything Paris has to offer, but he really longs to be in the Paris of the 1920s, a time when some of the greatest writers in history roamed the streets.
“I’m a Hollywood hack who never gave literature a real shot until now,” he wails.
One drunken night, a vintage car drives up to Gil and its passengers insist he hop in. A few minutes later Gil is hobnobbing with the likes of F. Scott Fitzgerald and swapping stories with Ernest Hemingway.
Gil’s initial shock of being next to his literary idols quickly turns to merriment. Why question the time space continuum when you can pester Hemingway for writing tips?
The next day Gil finds himself back in modern day Paris along with his unpleasant fiancée, but every night he makes an excuse to revisit the city block where that magical car escorted him back in time. And, sure enough, the car keeps reappearing right on schedule.
But can Paris’ romanticized past deliver a meaningful future for Gil? And will he find true love with Picasso’s current squeeze (Marion Cotillard, who delivers the most enchanting performance in the movie)?
Midnight in Paris begins like a tourist video, with Allen rotating a series of static shots of the city in action. Yawn. The pedestrian start would be entirely forgivable if that old Allen spark were soon to follow.
The film’s big message is telegraphed early in the film by a minor character, and you’ll have to wait another 80-plus minutes to hear it announced once more. For a filmmaker who calls out pseudo-intellectuals at every turn, his latest feature simply isn‘t very bright.
The time traveling conceit here is creaky but amusing, and certainly reminiscent of Allen‘s ‘80s comedy The Purple Rose of Cairo, without being outright theft.
It’s fine that Allen stocks the romanticized past with cartoon versions of so many famous personalities. Hemingway tells war stories, Zelda and F. Scott bicker. Gertrude Stein lords over a pit stop for creative souls. Adrien Brody plays Salvador Dali with a comic gleam in his eye, ruminating over silly notions as if he were on the cusp of splitting the atom.
It might have made for a more intriguing film had these characters ended up like real people, but Allen is clearly gunning for fantasy here, and the cast is having a ball.
But did Allen have to fill the rest of the movie with cartoons, too? Poor McAdams bears the brunt of Allen’s wrath. She’s a shrill partner, constantly putting Gil down and talking up her uber-intellectual pal (Michael Sheen).
Inez’s parents, begrudgingly in Paris to cinch a business deal, might as well be labeled Ugly Americans 1 and 2.
“France is no friend of the U.S.,” the father informs Gil early in the film, setting up a crude political discussion with the liberal-loving scribe that arrives out of nowhere. This sucker punch, as John Nolte of Big Hollywood would call it, doesn’t move the story forward a single inch.
“You almost gotta be a demented lunatic” to be a Republican, Gil cries before adding to Inez how much he respects her father‘s views. Later, in a recalled conversation which makes no sense, we learn Gil called tea partiers “crypto fascist airhead zombies.”
It’s an odd statement from an auteur who wishes President Barack Obama had dictator-style powers for a spell.
Wilson is genetically appealing, a fine outside the box choice to play an Allen surrogate. He manages to mimic the writer/director’s tics, but it’s not the out and out imitation attempted by Kenneth Branagh in Celebrity. He’s still stuck with a rather unlikable character, a spoiled brat with a fragile ego.
It’s one thing that Allen’s films use the same font — again — for the opening credits, or that he embraces his standard, scratchy jazz scores for his films. But Midnight in Paris reveals an artist stuck in his own version of the past, one without the artistry to deliver his comic visions.