Paris, je t'aime
He adored Paris. He idolized it all out of proportion. Uh, no, make that he, he romanticized it all out of proportion. Better. To him, no matter what the season was, this was still a town that existed in warm golden tones and pulsated to the great tunes of Cole Porter.These are not the opening lines of Midnight in Paris, but they could just as well be. Instead, Woody Allen's 41st feature film opens with a different, but still just as obvious riff on his magnificent 1979 picture Manhattan, with a series of shots of Paris playing over a jazzy piece of music, from morning to night, the kind of heavily sentimentalised images you might find in a tourist's scrapbook, providing that tourist had access to a photographer as gifted as Darius Khondji.
Not, Lord knows, that riffing on Manhattan is some kind of failure! In fact, the film that thus opens is Allen's best, or at any rate by a considerable margin his most pleasurable, since at least Sweet and Lowdown, which perhaps not coincidentally was also a loopy, desperately romantic tribute to the glories of the Jazz Age. Obviously, one should never take the word of a dedicated Woody Allen apologist at face value, particularly given our clockwork-like tendency to proclaim "Woody is back to form!" every three years (in 2008, Vicky Cristina Barcelona; in 2005, Match Point;
Midnight in Paris is like enough to Vicky Cristina Barcelona as to be cousins: both are at heart incredibly sentimental tributes to a particularly gorgeous European city, both of them essentially larks, satisfying little comedies with very little snap or bite - as Allen ages, he seems increasingly less able to marry drama and comedy the way he used to, though I'd defend You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger on that front, and would be rather lonely doing so. If I am inclined to give Midnight in Paris the edge, it's largely because it's a great deal more generous than VCB: that is to say, with Midnight in Paris, Allen has made his first film in years and years and years where it seems like he actually feels affection towards his characters, or at least his protagonist: without letting the character off the hook for being a bit too starry-eyed for his own good, there's little or no judgment involved. My gut tells me that Woody hasn't been in such a forgiving mood since Everyone Says I Love You, all the way back in 1996.
That protagonist is an American screenwriter (and specifically a script doctor, based on what we hear), named Gil Pender, played by Owen Wilson in one of the better, even one of the best Woody Allen impersonations, capturing all those special things we think of when we hear the words "the Woody Allen character", the neurosis and the intellectualism and the self-hating egotism, and combining it with something much more Wilsonian, a kind of innocent enthusiasm that makes that same neurosis seem bittersweet, almost. It's the actor's best work in a very long time; possibly his best performance ever in a film not directed by Wes Anderson.
Gil is in Paris with his fiancé Inez (Rachel McAdams who, you are correct, has no business playing a character named "Inez"), and her Republican parents John and Helen (Kurt Fuller and Mimi Kennedy), the young couple tagging along while Inez's father closes a business deal. They're all kind of unbelievably awful, right-wingers as depicted by a man whose satiric tooth has been blunted for a long time & thus can't come up with anything for them to do but grouse about the French and socialism; though the actors, McAdams especially, play the characters straighter than Allen seems to have written them, and thus manage to restore to them a measure of dignity; Inez manages therefore only by the narrowest of margins to avoid becoming a complete harridan, but she does avoid it, and so the film does not turn into a sour broadside against the wrong sort of people like Allen's recent, wholly unendurable Whatever Works.
Still, they're not at all the kind of people Gil should spent his time with, nor are Inez's old friends, the outlandishly fatuous Paul (Michael Sheen) and Carol (Nina Arianda), who also happen to be in Paris vacationing; and so it is that Gil's days and nights are filled with John's ugly Americanism and Paul's pretentious diatribes and Inez's ridicule at his fantasy of living the romantic life of a struggling author in the most beautiful city in the world. It happens one night that Gil is alone on the streets, when at the stroke of midnight an old Peugeot pulls up, and the inhabitants urge him to join them; before Gil knows what's going on, he finds himself transported to the 1920s, surrounded by the brightest lights of the Parisian art scene: F. Scott Fitzgerald (Tom Hiddleston), Zelda Fitzgerald (Alison Pill), Ernest Hemingway (Corey Stoll), Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates), Pablo Picasso (Marcial Di Fonzo Bo), Cole Porter (Yves Heck), and on, and on... For Gil, who has been complaining all vacation that he wishes he'd been alive in the '20s, this is better than heaven, and every night he finds an excuse to sneak out and enjoy the world of his romantic imaginings, and particularly the airy flapper Adriana (Marion Cotillard), beloved of all the brilliant people of the day.
There's a theme in all of this, but for a long time, the chief joy of Midnight in Paris lies in the wistful, light comedy Allen is able to spin out of all this. Wilson is absolutely indispensable, nailing the delighted bafflement of a man who has no idea why he's gotten so lucky, even making some clumsy-on-paper lines like "How long have you been dating Picasso? I can't believe I just said that" sing with easygoing warmth. And of course Allen, perhaps the most literate comic writer in the history of American cinema, goes to town with jokes praising and poking fun the icons parading across his sets: his Hemingway is a terse showboater with a sociopathic streak (and Stoll's performance is a marvel, broad without being silly), the one-scene cameo by Salvador Dalí (the actor playing the painter is such a delightful surprise that I will not say who it is) is almost savage in its parody of Surrealist excess (never has the word "rhinoceros" been used as a punchline so effectively so many times in a row), Zelda Fitzgerald is both a ditzy clown and a woozy victim of her own life, and so on, and so forth. It's the light mockery of somebody who knows what he's talking about and loves the object of his parody; it's humor for the well-read, though probably not as daunting as Allen's Love and Death in that regard (anyone likely to see a Woody Allen movie probably knows why painting Hemingway as a monosyllabic violence freak is at least conceptually funny).
With Khondji giving the whole thing the burnish of unabashed nostalgia (this is the first Allen film to use digital color-correction, and it doesn't not show), Midnight in Paris spends most of its time indulging the director and the protagonist in their affection for the wit and glamor of the '20s; yet throughout, Allen never quite hides the fact that Gil is a bit too sensitive and romantic for his own good, and as the movie goes on, it becomes clearer and clearer that it's no act of wish fulfillment, but a cautionary tale about daydreaming about the past so much that you cease to be able to function in the present. It's a theme expressed with some (much) heavy-handedness, but with such good cheer and sweetness that it's not at all a harangue; Allen is absolutely here to entertain, not to instruct, and the pointed, gently self-critical outro of this most delicately entertaining of Allen pictures serves not to spoil a breezy night at the movies, but to provide just that right dash of thoughtfulness to keep the film lingering as the bubbliness subsides. A more smitten love-letter to Paris you'll not find anytime soon, and as insubstantial as it is, that's hardly a match for how wonderfully pleasant it is.