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.