It’s been a long time since I read as many reviews of a movie as I did of Woody Allen’s latest offering, Midnight in Paris. As a native New Yorker who, decades ago, used to rush off to movie houses in Manhattan to see Allen’s earliest pictures as soon as they were released, and who has seen all but one or two of his dozens of films – some of them dozens of times – I was intrigued by the widespread and largely enthusiastic critical attention lavished on his latest effort and by the apparently healthy box-office figures, which represented a stunning departure from the widespread indifference to Allen’s work in recent years. Could all the praise possibly be deserved?
This is not to say that I’m one of those who feel Allen hasn’t made a good movie in decades. I think Manhattan Murder Mystery is loads of fun. I find Hollywood Ending hilarious. I have great affection for Everyone Says I Love You. Sweet and Lowdown is, indeed, sweet. Match Point is elegant. Vicky Christina Barcelona is engaging. And I’m actually crazy about Whatever Works.
But Midnight in Paris, which I finally caught up with on a plane the other day, stunned me with its sheer badness. It opens with a series of shots of the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe, and other familiar Paris-postcard sights, which feels terribly tired and clichéd and more than a bit too reminiscent of the considerably more inspired montages of New York City at the beginnings of Manhattan and Everyone Says I Love You. (Needless to say, there are no glimpses of the violence-ridden no-go zones in the banlieues – no car burnings, no rioters screaming “Allahu akbar!”)
The plot? Briefly put, it’s about a hack Hollywood screenwriter named Gil who’s visiting Paris with his fiancée, and who’s taken with the idea of trading the City of Angels for the City of Light, and giving up scriptwriting for novel-writing. Through some sort of mysterious alchemy, he finds himself transported on a series of nights, at exactly the stroke of twelve, to 1920s Paris, where he consorts with Hemingway, Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, Cole Porter, Picasso, Cocteau, and Salvador Dali, among others.
In every Woody Allen movie, whatever its merits, there’s always a bit of dialogue – a line here, a line there – that makes you wince or cringe. Invariably the subject is high culture. And invariably the problem is that the characters are talking about it in way that rings so totally false as to be embarrassing. Think, for example, of the Thanksgiving dinner-table dialogue about “Ibsen’s A Doll’s House” (as opposed, apparently, to Neil Simon’s A Doll’s House) at the beginning of Hannah and Her Sisters. Well, Midnight in Paris has more of that sort of thing in it than any Woody Allen movie yet. Only this time around, instead of people talking about Hemingway, you have Hemingway talking Hemingway. And what does he have to say? He keeps pontificating about “grace under pressure.” Meanwhile Fitzgerald keeps calling people “old sport,” just like Gatsby. The cringe factor is through the roof. Allen doesn’t seem to be going for broad parody or caricature here – he genuinely appears to be out to capture the magic of the 1920s expatriate scene in Paris. But it all comes off like a cartoon. There have been countless biographies of some of these people, which might have given Allen some clues as to how to capture these characters in a few deft strokes – but Allen has obviously not consulted them.