Silver Screen: Midnight in Paris ****
It sounds like a backhanded compliment to say that Midnight in Paris is one of Woody Allen's top fifteen or twenty movies, but it is not. Not only has Allen written and directed more than forty feature films, averaging about one a year, but even more astoundingly he keeps cranking out good ones. His hit-to-miss ratio might be slightly worse for the wear, but for every couple of Melinda and Melindas and Cassandra's Dreams there's still a winner in the mix-- Vicky Cristina Barcelona and Match Point being particularly good post-millennial Allen efforts.
Midnight in Paris features a conceit as light and frothy as the foam on a Parisian coffee drink. Screenwriter Gil (Owen Wilson), his fiancé e Inez (Rachel McAdams), and her parents (the very funny combo of Kurt Fuller and Mimi Kennedy) are on vacation in France, and the magic and history of Paris is stirring the lost artistic longings in would-be novelist Gil. But he's about to marry into a family of philistines, and neither his craven intellectual pretender of a future wife nor her Francophobe father appreciate his ardor for Old Paree. To get away from the group, Gil goes on a late-night stroll and is soon picked up by a car full of anachronistically dressed partiers, and when the taxi arrives at its destination Gil finds himself in the 1920s. He meets Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald (Alison Pill and Tom Hiddleston) and Papa Hemingway (Corey Stoll), listens to Cole Porter (Yves Heck) play some tunes on the piano, and talks art with Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates). But when he slips away to get his novel to show the group, he's back in the present day.
Yet every night when he returns to the same spot, the car picks him up and returns him to the twenties, where his famous new friends regard him as a fellow artist worthy of notice. And so by day Gil is forced to grind through the tourist routine with his lady and her suspiciously interested, gratingly snooty old friend Paul (Michael Sheen) while by night he parties in some of the most storied salons in modern art history alongside beautiful art groupie Adriana (Marion Cotillard).
For a long stretch, Midnight in Paris seems like a particularly amusing trifle, something like an English major's daydream fantasy, and that would almost be enough. Wilson is a great Woody Allen surrogate-- he doesn't just lapse into a bad impression à la Kenneth Branagh circa Celebrity-- and it's terrific fun watching him kibbitz with the likes of Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Picasso, Buñ uel, Man Ray, and Matisse. Allen's imagined versions of the artists are delightful, and the actors work wonders with the roles, especially Hiddleston, Pill, and Stoll, as well as Adrien Brody doing a hysterical riff on Salvador Dali in one excellent scene.
But eventually Allen folds the magical-realist conceit in on itself-- though thankfully never explaining its metaphysical mechanics-- to make an interesting study of the emotional mirages of nostalgia. It's an intriguing statement from a writer and director famed for his love of the past, be it pre-bop jazz or films of the 1940s and 1950s. But Allen makes a strong case without turning hypocritical or selling short the potential virtues of the past while also casting some doubts on the veracity of their allure.
A successful writer friend of mine scoffed at the idea of going to see Midnight in Paris and said that he felt like Allen had been doing little more than repeating himself for the past twenty years. There is some truth in that. Match Point is, really, just a slight update on the superior Crimes and Misdemeanors. But it's unlikely that anybody has forty feature films’ worth of unique ideas, and besides, the repetition does serve a function. Think of it like a composer playing variations on a theme: Midnight in Paris shares headspace with the similarly fantastical Purple Rose of Cairo and, to a lesser extent, Radio Days (and, inversely, Sleeper). While these films have some overlap, the harmonies of their synchronicity and the dissonance of their contradictions ultimately enhance the ideas Allen is presenting.
And besides, the Woodman has rarely written a monologue as moving and incisive as Gil's enthusiastic screed about the ways in which a city is itself a kind of living, evolving work of art. It's a sharp articulation of a theme Allen has been working over since Manhattan and Annie Hall, and which he's redoubled since his late-career renaissance period shooting movies in Europe. Approaching eighty, Allen still has one of the most assured and controlled voices in cinema, and he hasn't stopped testing his own limits.