People lament that the Woody Allen movies of the last ten years have been hit-or-miss. But you wouldn’t get upset at a coin for coming up tails a few times. There are many things to admire about Allen as a writer and director. He takes chances. He always picks talented collaborators. And, he’s steady. He’s gotten money to make a film a year since 1977. Even though recently he’s been forced to go to Europe to get that money, moving him out of his New York comfort zone has engendered some late masterpieces: Match Point and Vicki Christina Barcelona.
Midnight in Paris is too frothy to be called a masterpiece, but it’s sure a heck of a lot of fun. Owen Wilson plays Gil Pender, a successful Hollywood screenwriter who dreams of being a literary novelist. He and his fiancée, played by Rachel McAdams, are visiting Paris on her conservative father’s dime. (Kurt Fuller and Mimi Kennedy have fine turns playing the undesirable potential inlaws.) Gil is enraptured by the mystique of the city left by 1920’s expats like F. Scott Fitzgerald, James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway and Gertrude Stein. One night, wandering the city, he ends up magically sent back in time to precisely that era.
Allen (and Wilson) have a lot of fun playing with the personas of cultural icons. An appearance by Salvador Dalí (Adrien Brody), inspired by Wilson’s crooked nose to portray him as a rhinoceros, is one of many highlights. Wilson’s Gil falls for the beautiful art groupie Adriana (Marion Cotillard) but their romantic possibilities are complicated by her desire to live further back in Paris’ history – La Belle Epoque: Maxim’s, Toulouse Lautrec – and by the fact that Gil is betrothed. (Is it cheating if it’s another epoch?)
Ultimately, Allen seems to be deflating his own literary pretensions. His love for the Jazz Age is well-documented (not least in his film’s soundtracks). And it is delightful, if self-serving, to see him acknowledge that the time we’re living in now will one day be viewed as a Golden Age by some nostalgic future generation. The only thing that bothered me about Allen’s conceit is that it seems to take for granted that Hollywood screenwriting is inferior to literary novel writing. The popular audience seems to have settled that question long ago. If Allen believe so much in high art, why didn’t he include great opera performers in his Parisian reverie?
Since Allen has, many times in his long career, raised screenwriting to artful levels, his failure to give Gil such a realization made me think, with sadness, that Allen, looking back on a long career, may see himself as somehow less than a T.S. Eliot or a Man Ray. While he’s certainly not up to the level of his cinematic idols Bergman or Fellini, Allen is still a titan. But how much self-awareness might come across as self-aggrandizement?
Perhaps it’s better that the movie only pays lip service to these ideas. It’s a fools game to look for the artist too much inside his art. You could just as easily read the Gil character as a cipher not for Allen but Owen Wilson, who has always had a nostalgic strain to his screenwriting (Bottle Rocket, The Royal Tennenbaums).
Technical marks are very high, especially production design and art direction by Anne Seibel, working with Hélène Dubreuil (set decoration) and Sonia Grande (costumes). They manage to evoke distinct historical eras with loving detail. I am more divided on the contributions of d.p.’s Darius Khondji and Johanne Debas. The movie has a hazy, nostalgic tint, often golden. The wordless opening sequence, which features a montage of picture-postcard shots of Paris, is practically a shrine to their work. However, the compositions within the film could have been more striking, especially knowing how a director like David Fincher has made use of Khondji’s talents before. I’m going to chalk this up to Allen, who has never been a very visual filmmaker. At age 75, he still has room to grow.