It seems difficult to review a Woody Allen picture these days without discussing his personal situation. The problem is that, much as he denies it, Woody’s pictures are often subtly autobiographical. Allen’s new picture, Midnight in Paris, is about a screenwriter disenchanted with his work in Hollywood who wants to start over in Europe. Um, well, there goes art imitating life again. Allen’s last several films have been financed and shot mostly in Europe.
Many people have suspected that Allen was losing his touch. His films were not as self-assured, and they had less of a smooth feel than he’d been able to achieve earlier. I’m happy to report that this now seems a temporary aberration. Midnight in Paris marks a return to the “classic” Woody style, whatever that is. It’s not like one of his “earlier, funny films,” and it’s not like his Bergman-obsessed works like Interiors, but it has elements of both, and they work together well.
In Midnight in Paris, a screenwriter (Owen Wilson) is visiting Paris with his fiancee (Rachel McAdams) and her family. Weary of his hackneyed Hollywood jobs, he’s working on a novel about a guy who works in a nostalgia shop. While McAdams and her mother shop all over Paris, they meet up with a blowhard know-nothing (Michael Sheen). He’s the type of guy who doesn’t really know all that he thinks he knows, especially about art and history. These scenes are extremely reminiscent of ones in Allen’s film Manhattan, as is the entire sub-plot in which McAdams’ character falls for Sheen’s.
But that’s fine, since the bulk of the plot covers some familiar themes in very nice new ways. Disgusted with those around him, Wilson goes off for a walk and discovers himself in the Paris of the 1920s. Allen handles this masterfully. The shift happens in an old area of the city that could have been in the 2000s or 1920s, and we’re not quite certain how it works for a while. The mechanics of how the time travel actually happens are never explained or even explored. It’s simply a plot device. Allen uses it but doesn’t exploit it. James Cameron, please pay attention here.
Once in the 1920s, the film takes off. If you’re one of those people who knows nothing about Paris in the 1920s, then you may be left out of a lot of the plot. I’d encourage you to read up a little on it before you see the film. It doesn’t stop to spoon-feed you along. Wilson’s character meets Salvador Dali, Gertrude Stein, F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and a host of others. The casting is impeccable. Of particular merit are Kathy Bates as Stein and Adrien Brody as Dali.
While in the 1920s, Wilson meets Adriana (Marion Cotillard). Cotillard’s character, like Wilson’s, feels stuck in the wrong time. While Wilson would prefer to live in the time of the 1920s, Cotillard (native to the 1920s) yearns for the Paris of the 1890s with Lautrec and others.
There’s no point in giving more of the plot away; the rest of it is quite engaging and shows Allen’s comic introspection wonderfully. The question of whether to live in the past or the present is addressed quite humorously.
The real revelation in Midnight in Paris is that Owen Wilson is quite good! I’ve long considered Wilson a lightweight comedic actor of limited talent. He’s been in more of his share of movies that are overloaded with fart jokes, and I was beginning to think of him as limited to those kinds of things. I had quite liked him in The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), but most of the rest of the time, he’s been like a cut-rate Adam Sandler. His character in Midnight in Paris is clearly written as the Woody Allen character… you can hear the text is written for those inflections. The challenge for Wilson is to play a Woody character but still make it his own. I’m happy to report that he rises to this challenge admirably.
There are still things I’m not quite enchanted about in Midnight in Paris, but very few of them. The most striking one is that we know it’s a Woody Allen film because the colors are biased dramatically toward yellow all the way through. There’s less of this than there has been in previous Allen efforts, but I hope he gets it out of his system some day.
I’m trying to recommend this film to everyone I can, because I’m really not pleased about the current trend of movies that have to credit Stan Lee and have a roman numeral in the title. Not that there’s anything wrong with that… but there is something wrong that we have so much of it. Midnight in Paris is smart, not based on a comic book, and it’s not a sequel to anything. May it play to packed houses.