Midnight in Paris

Woody Allen has written and directed 44 feature films over the past 45 years, a streak that would be amazing even if all of those films sucked.

They don’t, of course. I consider five of them flat-out masterpieces (I’ll let you speculate as to which five in the comments). Another dozen or so are various degrees of excellent, and five or ten others are various degrees of good to great.

In a sense, Allen is not just a filmmaker but a genre unto himself. And as genres go, he’s one of my very favorites.

However, the new millennium hasn’t been very kind to Woody Allen. Following a nice one-two punch with 1999′s Sweet and Lowdown and 2000′s Small Time Crooks, he released a string of mediocre, forgettable films — starting off with a duo that represent the nadir of his career to date, The Curse of the Jade Scorpion and Hollywood Ending.

He bounced back in 2005 with the well-received Match Point (the film that marked his move from filming almost exclusively in New York to filming almost exclusively in Europe) and had another peak in 2008 with Vicky Cristina Barcelona.

But in general, the Woody Allen brand has been tarnished. Year after year, you hope he’ll release something special but you no longer really expect him to.

And in a way, that makes it all the more sweet when a gem like Midnight in Paris comes along. This is the first Woody Allen film in a long time that hearkens back to his golden years (the 80s), tapping into the same vein of magical realism and gentle humor as such films as The Purple Rose of Cairo, Zelig and Alice. And though it doesn’t quite approach those films in quality, it’s a similar treat.

Owen Wilson joins a long list of actors who’ve played the “Woody Allen role” over the past 20 years, and with his laid-back drawl and sandy-haired good looks he’s the least likely stand-in yet. But he does a nice job of tapping into the familiar neuroses and world-weariness, playing an American wannabe novelist in Paris, engaged to a superficial woman (Rachel McAdams) and longing for artistic inspiration.

Wilson’s character, Gil Pender, takes a midnight stroll through the streets of Paris and, through some form of magic that Allen refreshingly never bothers to explain, winds up traveling back in time to the 1920s. There he rubs elbows with the likes of Cole Porter, Ernest Hemingway, Salvador Dali and Pablo Picasso, among others. And he falls for the beautiful Adriana (Marion Cotillard), Picasso’s muse.

These Jazz Age scenes are sharp and seductive and full of intellectual inside jokes, half of which flew right over my head. It’s like a playground for an Art or English major and a little less fun for the rest of us, but I’m not about to fault a modern-day comedy for being too smart.

Gil finds the creative fuel he’s seeking in the past, even as he sees his fiancee drifting away in the present. But is it healthy to always look backward? And doesn’t everybody believe they’re better suited to some earlier time? That’s the theme of Midnight in Paris — the grass is always greener on the other side of the space/time continuum.

The acting, as always in Allen’s films, is spot on. Corey Stoll is a standout as Hemingway, as is Adrien Brody in a brief appearance as Dali. Alison Pill’s Zelda Fitzgerald is a delight, though she drops out of the film abruptly. In the modern-day scenes, Rachel McAdams does well with the thankless role of Gil’s shrew fiance, and she’s rarely looked as gorgeous. Michael Sheen plays a pompous blowhard (aka the Alan Alda role) with obvious glee.

But the real star of this film is Paris. Allen (like Gil) fell in love with the city as a young man, and at the age of 75 he finally shot a whole film there. The movie’s opening is a 3-minute montage, reminiscent of the great opening of Manhattan, in which Allen takes a postcard tour of the City of Light while a jazz standard plays on the soundtrack.

“No work of art can compare to a city,” Gil says at one point, and Woody Allen — with a major assist from cinematographer Darius Khondji — does his best to turn Paris into a work of art.

Midnight in Paris is not without its faults. This late in Allen’s career, some of his tropes are familiar enough to be tiring. The jokes aren’t quite as sharp anymore and the film’s theme is driven home a little too obviously in the third act. But just as you wouldn’t write home about the less picturesque parts of Paris, there’s no fun in nitpicking something this delightful.

The truth is, I think all of us — critics and fans alike — are quick to praise this film, to (as a wise man once said) romanticize it all out of proportion. We’re ready for a classic Woody Allen film, rich and warm and funny and familiar the way only his films can be. Midnight in Paris is all of those things, but above all it’s a reminder of a time when a new Woody Allen movie was a special event.

It’s a reminder that we need the eggs.

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6 thoughts on “Midnight in Paris

  1. Amy says:

    Your top five (in no particular order):

    Radio Days
    Annie Hall
    Manhattan
    Hannah and Her Sisters
    and…. I’m not sure what you’d choose as #5… maybe Crimes and Misdemeanors? Zelig? Those would be my two best guesses, but I’m quite confident about the other four. :)

    Great review of a wonderful film. I’m not sure that I needed the eggs, but I definitely was willing to romanticize the film out of proportion, a fact that I realized as I sat in the theater doing just that. And, yes, the fact that I’m an English major and teacher probably caused me to relish some of the “jokes” even more, but I agree that my lack of understanding of every last nuanced art joke certainly didn’t cause me to enjoy the film any less.

    I fell in love with this film as I was watching it, and I can’t remember the last time I felt that way (maybe Eternal Sunshine?) Perhaps the fact that I was rekindling a love affair with a long lost love made it all the sweeter. Regardless, I don’t want to examine the feeling too closely. I just want to enjoy it!

  2. pegclifton says:

    Another wonderful review! I can’t wait to see the movie. I love Woody Allen, and it’s hard to believe he has made 44 movies. I’m not sure what your favorite five are, but mine would be Annie Hall, Manhattan, Hannah and Her Sisters, Purple Rose of Cairo, and Match Point. I also loved Everyone Says I love you, and many others. I’m reading “Paris Wife”now–a fictional account of Hemmingway’s wife Hadley and their time in Paris in the 20′s; so this fits in nicely.

  3. Clay says:

    Amy got the first four right, and I’d put Purple Rose of Cairo in there as the fifth. Zelig is another strong candidate, though.

  4. pegclifton says:

    Looks like I got 4 of your 5 as well!

  5. pegclifton says:

    We just came back from the movie, and found it to be as delightful as you all did. Amy, I like you, just sat back and smiled the whole time. Wonderful way to spend the afternoon!

  6. Andrea Katz says:

    Just saw the movie last night and I agree that this was a love affair with Paris like Manhattan was to NYC. Yes, it was lovely though again not as sharp as those homages were in the past. this is a work of an old master, perhaps free to be slightly more sentimental and indulgent than in the past. I loved (love) your reviews Clay. You have such great insight and knowledge in this area. Thanks again.

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