Midnight in Paris: The Woodman Stumbles

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.

The major exception to all this is Kathy Bates’s rather credible Gertrude Stein, who belongs in a better movie – though Stein’s eagerness to read Gil’s half-finished novel, and her enthusiasm for it, strain belief.  A word or two needs to be said about this whole business of novel-writing as it figures in the Woody Allen universe.  Allen is a filmmaker, but in his movies people who create films and TV shows are almost invariably hacks, while writing a book is, by definition, an act of seriousness, even, perhaps, redemption.  In Manhattan, Allen’s character quits a TV comedy writing gig to write a novel; he chides his friend Yale (Michael Murphy) for not getting started on his Eugene O’Neill book; and he gives the Diane Keaton character grief for banging out a novelization of a movie (which doesn’t count as really writing a book) when she should, instead, be working on a novel of her own.  (“I’ve read your fiction,” he tells her, “it’s terrific!”)  In Celebrity, the Kenneth Branagh character’s celebrity journalism and attempts at screenwriting are mocked, in contrast to his struggle to produce literary fiction, which the audience is invited to view as admirable.

So when Allen presents us, in Midnight in Paris, with a protagonist who wants to quit his fantastically successful life as a Hollywood screenwriter and move to Paris to finish his novel, we’re supposed to cheer the guy on.  There’s only one problem here – actually two.  In order for this movie to work at all, the audience needs to care about Gil, and needs to believe in his ardent enthusiasm for the work of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, et al.  (We are, after all, presumably meant to understand that it is Gil’s outsized passion for these people’s art that somehow effects the time-travel magic whereby he is vouchsafed a taste of their company.)

And that’s where the movie fails most ignominiously.  Gil, as portrayed by Owen Wilson, comes off, not to put too fine a point on it, as a dummy.  You can’t imagine this lightweight ever having read The Sun Also Rises or The Great Gatsby, let alone understanding what makes them more meritorious than, say, The Valley of the Dolls.  In fact Gil comes off like somebody who got through college reading the Cliff’s Notes.  He’s supposed to be a gifted writer, but early in the film he says “I” instead “me,” and Allen doesn’t seem to notice the grammatical error.  In a scene that takes place shortly before Gil starts traveling back in time, he’s walking around Paris with his fiancée and a couple of American friends and says: “What is it Hemingway called Paris?  A moveable feast?”  We’re supposed to believe that this guy has been madly in love with Paris, and all things French, for years, but he’s never bothered to learn a single word of the language.  (When he can’t find his way back to his hotel, we discover that he’s incapable of asking for directions – i.e., he doesn’t know the French words for “where” and “is.”)  As one character in Hollywood Ending says about another, he “radiates stupidity.”

And yet we’re supposed to root for this guy.  As part of the effort to win Gil our affection, Allen contrasts his politics with those of his fiancée’s father, who’s also visiting Paris.  The father supports the Tea Party; Gil disapproves of it.  The father criticizes French politicians’ behavior toward the U.S.; Gil stands up for them.  Here, as in all of Allen’s movies, the people we’re meant to see as the good guys are reliably on the left.  In Annie Hall, Alvy Singer (Allen) describes himself as “a bigot, but for the left.”  In Manhattan, Isaac (Allen again) attends an Equal Rights Amendment fundraiser hosted by Bella Abzug.  The girl narrator of Everyone Says I Love You says of her rich Upper East Side family that “we’re all liberal Democrats,” and one of the jokes in the movie is that the teenage son’s sudden political turn to the right is the result of a brain tumor.

Yet while Allen likes to think of himself as a standard-issue Manhattan liberal, the sensibility of his films (whether he realizes it or not) is largely conservative.  Over and over he makes it clear that he despises pretty much everything that came out of the 1960s, and one after another of his films is an exercise in cultural nostalgia for the pre-Sixties world.   His pictures’ musical scores testify to his obsession with the Great American Songbook.  (Recall, for example, the sequence in Hannah and Her Sisters in which Dianne Wiest takes him to see a punk rock band that he hates, joking that “after they sing, they’re gonna take hostages” – after which, in order to give her a taste of “something nice,” he takes her to the Carlyle to hear Bobby Short perform Cole Porter.)  Just as The Purple Rose of Cairo and Radio Days are love letters to the 1930s and 40s – and both very charming ones, at that – Midnight in Paris is a love letter to the 1920s.  The problem, alas, is that this is one billet doux that just doesn’t connect.