Modern writer time-travels to Jazz Age Paris in funny, fabulous ‘Midnight In Paris’
From the fabulous poster art to a sweet little epiphany in the last frame, there is nothing not to love in Woody Allen’s latest, Midnight In Paris. In the poster, star Owen Wilson is sauntering alongside the River Seine at night, while the extravagant blues and blazing, swirling lights of Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” explode across the sky above the ancient buildings lining the bank. This single image says everything about the art, history, enduring fantasy, and cultural allure of Paris, issues Allen addresses with such savvy brio in this marvelously inventive film.
Wilson is all light, easygoing charm as American in Paris, Gil Pender. A typical Allen surrogate (garbed in Woody’s traditional light blue shirt and khaki pants), Gil is a successful Hollywood screenwriter who longs to chuck it all and write serious fiction—preferably in a romantic garret in Paris.
And preferably in the 1920s; he’s completely fixated on the tumultuous creative ferment that was Paris in the ’20s, which produced the likes of Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, James Joyce, and Pablo Picasso. He’s tinkering with a book manuscript he hopes will be his ticket out of Hollywood and into la vie bohème.
But his fiancée, Inez (Rachel McAdams) has other ideas. After their wedding, she’s looking forward to a happy life in Malibu, taking advantage of all the luxuries money can buy. (“Do you really want to give it all up just to struggle?” she reasons, when he mentions his literary ambitions.) The two of them have tagged along to Paris with her father, a corporate exec on a business trip, and her interior decorator mother (Mimi Kennedy), who’s ever on the lookout for expensive antiques to furnish their post-nuptial home. And none of them share Gil’s fascination with French history and culture.
Neither does snobby Brit, Paul (Michael Sheen), and old friend of Inez’s, who’s in the city to lecture at the Sorbonne. The kind of pedant who thinks he knows more than the tour guides about French art, Paul scoffs at Gil’s “nostalgia” for a simpler, more compelling past. Small wonder that as Inez keeps making double dates with Paul and his wife, Gil keeps finding ways to weasel out and walk around the cobbled streets of Paris on his own. On one such nighttime excursion, just as the church clock chimes midnight, he’s picked up by a party of champagne-guzzling revelers in a vintage Peugeot roadster and driven straight into his dream.
To Gil’s astonishment and the viewers’ delight, he suddenly finds himself in Paris of the ’20s, listening to Cole Porter (Yves Heck) sing at the piano, clinking glasses with Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald (Tom Hiddleston and Alison Pill), even showing his manuscript to Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates). Every night he communes with the likes of Picasso, Matisse, Josephine Baker, Luis Buñuel, and T. S. Eliot, while growing more estranged from Inez and his real life—especially once he meets Adriana (Marion Cotillard), a soon-to-be-ex-mistress of Picasso, who, like Gil, idealizes the past. (Although for Adriana, it’s life in the ’20s that’s too “noisy, complicated and fast;” she longs for the belle époque.)
This magic realism element is just ridiculous amounts of fun, from the care with which Allen recreates the vintage cars, fashions, and interiors of the ’20s (hold onto your eyeballs when we enter the famous Stein atelier), and the fidelity with which his actors resemble their historical counterparts, to the hilarity of Wilson’s perpetually dumbstruck expressions. Famous names are dropped with wicked glee. (Told he’s just been dancing the Charleston with famed Sapphic poet Djuna Barnes, Gil muses, “No wonder she wanted to lead.”) We can’t wait to see who Gil meets next, from Corey Stoll’s wry take on Ernest Hemingway, making terse pronouncements on death, war, and the writing life, to Adrien Brody as a wonderfully loony Salvador Dali. (Gil’s time-traveling dilemma doesn’t seem strange at all to the Surrealists.)
Allen understands the human longing for a bygone “Golden Age” we feel like we’ve missed—especially when the present gets too complicated. But would we really want to live there? Allen’s conclusion is as breezy and true as a Cole Porter lyric, the perfect nightcap to this fizzy, bracing cocktail of a movie.
MIDNIGHT IN PARIS
★★★★ (out of four) Watch film trailer >>>
With Owen Wilson, Rachel McAdams, Marion Cotillard, and Michael Sheen. Written and directed by Woody Allen. A Sony Classics release. Rated PG-13. 100 minutes.