Woody Allen’s new film, Midnight in Paris, is the fanciful tale of a writer, Gil Prender (Owen Wilson) who is about to get married, but falls in love with the city of Paris and contemplates moving there. Every night at midnight, a car picks Gil up and brings him to his favorite era, 1920s Paris, where he meets people like F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, and, in a particularly funny scene, Salvador Dali, Luis Bunuel, and Man Ray. Meanwhile, his fiancee Inez (Rachel McAdams) is falling for her former professor, Paul (Michael Sheen).
This is Allen’s best film in quite awhile, certainly since Vicky Christina Barcelona, which this rivals. The fanciful aspects of the film blend nicely with the realistic, present-day sequences. The transition between them is smooth and Allen doesn’t burden us with lengthy explanations. They just happen, and we accept them. Of course, this is not the first time he has delved into the supernatural (think Sleeper, A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy, Scoop or Deconstructing Harry), but it may be his best.
This is a film about regret and nostalgia from a director who specializes in, and in some ways embodies, such things. Gil regrets not moving to Paris when he was younger, and is trying to leave a career as a Hollywood writer to become a novelist. It quickly becomes apparent that he is in a mismatched relationship, and you wonder for a minute whether he is about to make another mistake that he will regret in getting married to a woman who doesn’t respect him, and whose parents do not like him. This dynamic is set up early in the film at a dinner where Gil argues with Inez’s dad about politics, and it is obvious they do not like each other. It is not difficult to notice the autobiography in many of Allen’s films, so it makes sense that, at 75, he has turned to thinking about the past. That said, the film is not at all depressing or brooding, but funny, light-hearted and optimistic.
The performances are uneven, but there are some sparkling moments. Owen Wilson does a pretty good job as the latest in a line of Woody Allen surrogates (most recently Larry David, but also Michael Caine, John Cusack, Kenneth Branagh, and others). He masters Allen’s nervous mannerisms in some of the present-day scenes but manages to play the fantastic parts of the movie straight, grounding and balancing the character with the laconic persona expected of Owen Wilson. Rachel McAdams also does a fine job in her role of belittling Gil and flirting with Paul, but most of her performance is bodily, walking around in a towel, jutting her hips, basically being seen. This is not her fault, of course, as Woody’s camera is a the perfect embodiment of the male gaze, and the Inez character is barely developed. A good case in point is the long take of Inez and her mother walking down the street, shot entirely in medium close-up of her ass swaying back and forth in tight jeans. Some of the best performances come in the fantasy sequences. Corey Stoll’s Hemingway is stereotypical and funny, as he constantly searches for fights and women, and never misses a chance to talk about bravery. Although he appears only in two short scenes, Adrien Brody chews it up as Dali, going on about rhinoceroses. Kathy Bates does a decent Gertrude Stein, and Marion Cotillard is a nice counterpart to Owen Wilson as his 1920s love interest.
One last thing about one of themes of the film. The character of Paul, played by Michael Sheen, takes up one of Allen’s ongoing themes: the arrogant intellectual. The most famous example of this is the guy in line at the cinema in Annie Hall.
In this case, though, Paul is a major character and a threat to the main relationship in the movie. He wears a perfectly trimmed, close-cropped beard, and starts every sentence with “If I’m not mistaken…” He is constantly in lecture-mode, even when he is occasionally wrong. He argues with a tour guide (played by Carla Bruni) about Rodin, and abets Inez in belittling Gil. He is a perfect incarnation of the insufferable academic, and a thoroughly unlikeable character. The opposition between Paul and Gil, the academic and the artist, is something Allen has been playing out for decades. Allen reveres thinkers, philosophers and writers but seems to revile academics. He is not so much anti-intellectual and anti-intellectuals. His critique may be fair in some cases, but it smacks of an underlying bitterness and oversimplifies the academic role. Or maybe I am being overly defensive. In any case, this is one of the most explicit portrayals to date of this ongoing tension in Allen’s work between critic and artist, a critique that may be fair in some cases, but could use a little nuance. Given the backdrop of the playful interplay of past and present, though, and the relative unimportance of these characters, it doesn’t detract from the fantasy elements of the film, which are, after all, the main attraction.