Midnight in Paris, undoubtedly Woody Allen's best movie in over a decade, is an unmitigated delight: 100 minutes of Parisian swoon, written by F. Scott Fitzgerald, painted by Pablo Picasso, and scored by Cole Porter. Despite his curmudgeonly air, Allen has never exactly eschewed sentimentalism and his newest film recalls some his most romantic flights of fancy like The Purple Rose of Cairo and the nostalgic Broadway Danny Rose.
In the film, the Woody character (and there's always one) is Gil (Owen Wilson), a successful Hollywood writer who is fed up with penning commercialist pablum, yearning instead to start work on his own Great American Novel. He finds the opportunity on a vacation to Paris with his shrew fiancÃ©e Inez (Rachel McAdams, in full bitch mode). To Inez and her rich, WASPy parents, Paris is a city for haute couture shopping and guided museum tours. Gil longs for the bygone glories of the Lost Generation, when Jazz Age expats like Ernest Hemingway swarmed Montmartre, bursting with once-in-a-generation creativity. For Gil, the eternal romantic, the famous city looks its best at night, in the rain; Inez wouldn't want to muss up her hair.
And thus the seeds of discord as sewn. Gil clearly has no use for these modern times, which he disparages while turning a blind eye to the fact that his success as a screenwriter affords him an enviable lifestyle of luxury of which few would day dream. Gil is our hero and Owen Wilson lends a critical likability to a character so mired in the past he often threatens to turn into an irredeemably whiny child who dreams of an idealized past he cannot possibly attain.
This entire picture is suffused with joy. You can tell Allen gets as much of a kick out of his characters as we do; he's created a wonderful sandbox in which to play. The cinematography by Darius Khondji is stupidly beautiful: the entire city of Paris looks like it's been dipped in honey and lit with the soft, glamour lighting usually reserved for movie stars. Paris is the star of the film; it commands the screen. A pre-credit sequence delivers the good right away: it's just shot after shot of Parisian street scenes, each famous landmark and architectural wonder more picturesque than the next. The sequence immediately calls to mind the famous opening of Manhattan, only this time Allen replaces his own voice for a jazzy, accordion inflected song. The Jazz Age makeup and costumes seamlessly invoke the period. An upbeat soundtrack full of Cole Porter did nothing to dissuade me from falling in love with every conceivable aspect of the picture.
Midnight in Paris works so well because it is a fantasy created by a man who wished to imagine it existed, so he wrote a movie about a man making it exist, and by doing so, allowed everyone else to partake in the joys of that fantasy world. Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris is totally shameless in its creation of illusory happiness, and God bless him for that. Allen's conjured Parisian paradise totally succeeds in creating passionate, instantaneous nostalgia: I can't wait to see it again.
Ah, but here is where Woody Allen brings the magic to Midnight in Paris: he indulges Gil. This is an escapist fantasy. Gil longs to return to the past, and he does. Walking alone one night, a little drunk and very lost, he stumbles upon a grand, old '20s era vehicle full of jovial '20s era people who entreat Gil to join in their party. Very quickly he's ushered into a lavish party where the women are dressed like flappers and the men slick back their hair. A costume party. But, wait, isn't that Cole Porter playing piano? Can't be. And who are these people introducing themselves as Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald informing Gil he's just gatecrashed Jean Cocteau's party? Confused but intrigued, Gil travels to the same spot every night where, at the stroke of midnight, he's allowed an entre into his ultimate fantasy: Paris, at night. In the rain. In the 1920s.
Yes, Midnight in Paris is a time-traveling romantic comedy, although it never feels that way. Allen's greatest trick is indulging the audience's delight in Gil's escapist fantasies while not succumbing to the temptation to bring everything back to "reality." Reality, the film argues quite successfully, is boring. Why would anyone want to hang out with Inez when they could go drinking with Hemingway? Gil's relationship problems fade into the background, and good riddance. His budding romance with an artist's muse played by Marion Cotillard, is much more engrossing. Cotillard, it must be said, in smoky eye makeup and cigarette holder, looks like she was born to play a Roaring Twenties flapper. She wouldn't look out of place standing next to "It girl" Clara Bow or the original silent film vamp, Musidora. She and Wilson have a nice, understated chemistry and their sweet but chronologically impossible romance strikes the right balance.
I really can't stress how straight up enjoyable the experience of watching Midnight in Paris is. Allen peppers his film with cameos from almost every notable name of the 1920s, including grande dame of the Lost Generation Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates, perfectly cast). Gil becomes a regular in Stein's circle, getting notes on his manuscript and rubbing elbows with everyone from Henri Matisse to T.S. Elliott. Each new revelation brings a little jolt of surprise and delight to any reviewer well versed in the period. Even those who won't recognize more obscure names can take pleasure in the impeccably cast actors. In a scene too good to spoil with details, Adrian Brody makes quite an impression as everyone's favorite mustachioed surrealist.
May 20, 2011