Thursday, June 9, 2011

Midnight in Paris (***1/2)

Written and Directed by Woody Allen


In the world of American cinema, there are two constants: over-saturated summer films and Woody Allen. The 75-year-old filmmaker has just about made one film per year since 1969. Through he 70’s and 80’s, he was the most proficient and consistent filmmaker of his time, continuously churning out modern classics like Love and Death, Annie Hall, Hannah and Her Sisters, and Crimes and Misdemeanors. Over the last two decades, it has been more hit-and-miss, with a lot of spectacular misses during the 2000’s. His latest film, Midnight in Paris, though, may be his best film in a very long time, with its return to familiar thematic material and its injection of great, dyanmic performances.

When Gil Pender (Owen Wilson) decides to accompany his flighty fiancé Inez (Rachel McAdams) on a trip to Paris to visit her businessman father, Gil is immediately taken with the city. Gil is a classic romantic, dreaming of walking through the French rain and listening to Cole Porter. He’s a successful Hollywood screenwriter but feels like his scripts are the work of a lazy hack, totally lacking of true artistic substance. He’s trying to write his first novel, but finds the work to be a struggle and won’t allow anyone – not even Inez – take a peak at it. He hopes that more time in this beautiful city will help spark some inspiration. Gil is also struggling wih Inez’s pessimistic attitude and her equally skeptical parents, who are constantly questioning his need to create art when he can so easily make money churning out average screenplays. It doesn’t help that Inez insists on them spending time with Paul (Michael Sheen), her friend from America and an over-stuffed über intellectual of the highest order.

It’s not long before Gil finds excuses to spend more time by himself and work on his book. While walking alone drunkenly through the streets at midnight, he sees a classic car stop on the curb, filled people asking him to join them. Naturally, Gil obliges them. He’s transported to a strange party where everyone is dressed like 1920’s flappers. As he moves throughout the party, he manages to meet Zelda Fitzgerald (Alison Pill) and her husband, the F. Scott Fitzgerald (Tom Hiddleston). They let him know that the piano player in the corner of the room is Cole Porter (Yvez Heck), and they later take him to a bar to meet a stern Ernest Hemingway (Corey Stoll, in a rollicking and hysterical performance) who agrees to give Gil’s novel to Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates).

Gil is so overwhelmed by being surrounded by his biggest heroes, he barely the insanity of it all. Then he meets Adriana (Marion Cotillard), a mistress of Pablo Picasso, and is immediately taken by her. So, every night, Gil continues to find a way to excuse himself from Inez so he can find the same car and be transported to his dream era. As he spends more and more time with Hemingway and Stein, he begins to learn more about the strengths and weaknesses of his novel. More importantly, though, as he spends more and more time with Adriana, he begins to question the quality of his relationship with Inez. Can he give it all up to live in a different time with his closest idols? Is his real relationship with Inez worth jeopardizing with the fantasy of Adriana?

This is not new territory for Woody. You can go all the way back to Annie Hall to see begin to address the concept of romantic dissatisfaction and the fear of stagnation. And, of course, you can watch his great 1985 film The Purple Rose of Cairo to see him talk about the human fight of fantasy vs reality. Midnight in Paris doesn't really attack any of these themes in new, insightful ways, nor does it have the stern reality check that Purple Rose contained in its powerful conclusion. Instead, Woody allows the film to speak for itself while throwing glowing homages to the greatest artists of the 1920's. Midnight in Paris is a deliciously fun film because it doesn't have that heavy hand. Instead, it finds comfort in being a terrific story with captivating characters set in an intoxicating locale.

This fascination with European landscapes has been a trend in Woody Allen’s work since 2004’s Match Point, but Midnight in Paris is the only time when Allen has treated a city with the same romantic nostalgia as his beloved Manhattan (in fact, an opening montage of Paris locales has a suspicious familiarity with the opening montage within Woody’s 1979 classic, Manhattan). You can definitely see a lot of Woody himself in Gil, which comes as no surprise, but this is probably the first time since 1999’s Sweet and Lowdown that it seems we are watching a film that Woody has a true emotional investment in. Woody fans have had to deal with a decade and a half of what has seemed like half-hearted efforts (though, I guess that really depends on what you thought of Vicky Christina Barcelona – I was not a fan), but this one feels like Woody at his 70’s-80’s best. 

As the obligatory Woody surrogate, Owen Wilson does a terrific job, efficiently encapsulating that familiar character we've seen in all Allen's films, while still maintaining the boyish charm that has made Wilson a movie star. As the magical siren drawing Gil back in time, Cotillard is adorable and captivating as the "art groupie" Adriana, continuing her fabulously consistent work in American cinema. Both Sheen and McAdams are both fantastic and hilarious in their supporting roles, constantly undermining Gil's romantic dream of a life in Paris. It's nothing new that a Woody Allen films are filled with wonderfully nuanced characters that all actors would love to chew on, but this is the first time in a long time that he has been able to find a cast to really do it justice.

I'm totally biased when it comes to Woody. I've probably seen more films by him then I've seen by any other filmmaker. Even with his lackluster work over the last decade and change, I still continue to come back every year and see his newest film. I believe I'm content with the fact that he will probably never make another film that isn't terribly similar to another he has made. The guy has directed forty films in forty-two years, so perhaps it's a little much to ask for something brilliant every time around. So, I'll live with the silliness of a film like Small Time Crooks or the incompetence of last year's You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, because we now have Midnight in Paris, a return to greatness. But I don't expect it to start a trend. 


Da Vinci Smetana said...

Great review. I need to brush up on my old Woody Allen films (namely Purple Rose). I never thought of the opening sequence being similar to Manhattan's. Maybe that's because we got there in the middle of it. Oopps. Good observation.

That 20 Something Virgin. said...

thanks for the review, i like rachel mcadams and have been wanting to see this one! was hoping it'd be good.