By Matt Smith
Midnight In Paris, the new comedy from Woody Allen is as literate and funny as his best work. He delivers yet another film that wrestles with the ultimate meaninglessness of human existence in that impeccable way that only he seems to be capable of. By exposing us to the joys of life and guiding his characters to a deeper understanding of their own predicaments, so too does he provide biting insight into our own seemingly endless fascination with nostalgia, historical perspective and seeking out vague notions of happiness by attempting to reclaim pasts that are never the ideal we hold of them. I’m an avowed fan of Allen’s, and I don’t think he’s ever made a truly terrible movie, though he would most certainly beg to differ. I think this is one of his finest. Who knows what Allen thinks until his next interview.
Owen Wilson plays Gil Pender, a typical Allen cypher, with a decidedly West Coast slant: a slightly neurotic writer who has made a living writing scripts in Hollywood and who views his body of work as mediocre at best. Visiting Paris on the verge of his marriage and a pending move to Malibu his fiancee Inez (Rachel McAdams) is pushing, Gil is attempting to get his novel sold to a publisher, and to make the jump into pursuing his dreams as reality. Cue the intrusion of the fantastic, typical but still fruitful dissatisfaction with the prospects of marriage, and it may seem like you’ve seen it all before, from Stardust Memories to Bullets Over Broadway to Scoop, but I assure you, you have not.
Gil, who once lived in Paris briefly, longs for the era of great writing that was the 1920s, when the city was populated by great artists intermingling and collaborating and drinking, like Hemingway, Picasso, Fitzgerald, Dali, and so on. One night after having suffered through another one of Inez’s pseudo-intellectual friend Paul’s (a squirmingly awkward and hilarious turn by Michael Sheen) speeches about art, instead of going dancing with the group, Gil decides to walk back to the hotel and wander the streets at night, gathering some fresh and air and inspiration. He gets lost during this sojourn, and picked up, half drunk, by a couple in an old Peugeot. The people are Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald, and soon Gil is hobnobbing with everyone from Ernest Hemingway and Pablo Picasso to Salvador Dali and Luis Bunuel, and having his novel read and critiqued by Gertrude Stein.
These sequences are a lot of fun, and the film hits its stride when it’s firmly rooted in Gil’s literary past. The characters are all conveyed truthfully, saying things and acting like we would expect them to behave based on what we know about their personalities, and as appropriate for the heightened surreality of Gil’s circumstances. Wisely, Allen never gives us an explanation of the mechanics behind Gil’s trips to the past, simply putting out there that it happened, and letting us follow him into the unknown. When he meets Picasso’s French mistress Adriana (Marion Cotillard), Gil becomes enamored with her, and she with him. He discovers that she idealizes and romanticizes la Belle Epoch in the 1890s, and that she finds her own time dull, a sentiment Gil can fully understand. Needless to say, it’s not long before they both journey even further back in time to that earlier era and discover that its patron saints of the arts, Toulouse-Lautrec, et al, long to have been born in the Renaissance.
All of this is a somewhat longwinded way of getting to the point that Allen ultimately wants to make, which is that we are always going to be discontent with our present realities, because the present really is boring, and we don’t know what exciting things people will write or wax nostalgic about in the future. As is the case with the best of Allen’s output, this is almost beside the point. Overt, but unimportant, the journey is the thing in Midnight In Paris, providing all of the reasons why we invest so deeply in Gil’s situation.
The actors all sell their characters really well, and there’s a cadence that gets struck in the many conversations with artists and literary figures that keeps us equal parts entertained and enlightened. Adrien Brody’s turn as Salvador Dali is inspired, and he gets to wax poetic about the rhinoceros, but the real discovery is unknown Corey Stoll, who has been working as an actor in minor roles for the past decade, but here steals most of the scenes as the manliest version of Ernest Hemingway I can imagine. And in fact, that’s why all of the characterizations work – and are so funny – because they are imagined versions of these people, drawing on all the ideas we have formed about them since their deaths.
The real world characters are also worth our time, and played wonderfully, with Michael Sheen’s Paul, a professor of, I think, art history who goes on and on (and on and on) about French masters, even at the expense of the tour guide (Carla Bruni) who attempts to correct him when he’s wrong about certain things. This leads to a great scene in a museum where Paul is analyzing a Picasso that Gil has earlier heard Gertrude Stein critiquing, and Gil gets to correct Paul about almost every aspect of what he says about the painting, much to the dismay and distaste of his fiancee, who thinks he is being rude and doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Gil, it turns out, is a quick wit, dry and funny and sincere, and there are plenty of asides when he’s discussing politics with Inez’s parents that take much needed pot shots at the scam of the Tea Party movement. Sure, this is all the stuff Allen used to do himself, but Wilson’s breezier delivery, shaggier and looser appearance and much more amiable demeanor toward an audience (he’s much less self conscious a performer) lend the role a certain freshness, and it’s nonetheless markedly different from most comedic lead roles to be found in current releases.
Visually and tonally, Midnight In Paris is akin to what many consider to be Allen’s masterpiece, Manhattan. The picture opens with a travelogue of Paris throughout the day, getting the viewers in the mood of the city, the different ways it can be in different light and different weather – a theme that is hinted at throughout the movie by things that various characters say about Paris and how it appears. There are also countless musical cues – Paris here is tied to Cole Porter as much as Manhattan was to Gershwin in that previous film. It also hits the pitch-perfect note for those of us familiar with Allen’s slightly pessimistic, but mostly just realistic worldview. Gil may realize at the end of the film that we can’t live just in the past, but I don’t think he realistically believes any of the decisions he makes after this journey into his wildest dreams will substantially change his life on their own; life is what you make of it.
With Midnight In Paris, we have the first truly great film of the summer. It’s not a blockbuster, and it doesn’t feature any of my beloved superheroes, but it gets at the heart of the appeal for what attaches us to superheroes anyway, whether real (like Hemingway, Cole Porter, etc.) or imagined comic book characters. The heroes are always there for us, and its good to draw inspiration from them, but in the end it doesn’t really solve any of our problems. Woody Allen’s film lets us have our fantasy and brings us back down to earth so we can realize on our own how what we do right now is the only thing that matters (and even then not very much).