A review for Midnight in Paris requires no preamble simply because it’s the best movie Woody Allen has made in years, which alone should be sufficient reason to watch it in light of the director’s limp and joyless recent output. But a review that begins with the suggestion that Midnight in Paris far exceeds the praise worthiness of, say, Vicky Christina Barcelona also damns Allen’s latest film with faint praise. Fortunately, Midnight in Paris stands head and shoulders above most of what Allen has offered in the last decade because it’s a truly wonderful picture on its own merits and not because it happens to crest the director’s latter-day missteps by minor jumps in quality.
Allen’s playing with magical realism in his narrative, in the form of a cab which whisks away Gil Pender (Owen Wilson in an excellent turn as the Allen surrogate du jour) to the 1920s. As one might gather from the title, the setting is Paris, and the device allows Gil to rub elbows with the great artistic minds of the era, from Ernest Hemingway (Corey Stoll) to Man Ray (Tom Cordier). Appropriately, Gil’s a writer himself, though the film establishes that he only recently in life has begun striving for genuine artistic achievement after spending his career as a hack screenwriter in Hollywood; his late-bloomer development earns reactions fluctuating between incredulous and scornful from his dismissive fiance Inez (Rachel McAdams), as well as her parents (Kurt Fuller and Mimi Kennedy) and her pretentious know-it-all friend Paul (Michael Sheen).
Midnight in Paris doesn’t require much heavy lifting from its audience, but I think it’s a mistake to equate light storytelling with a lack of depth or subtext. Allen’s film very much remains packed with meaning but never does a moment go by where the search for interpretive meaning takes precedent over enjoying the way the director deploys his narrative. There’s a definite sense that he’s not trying to make a statement with his film as much as he’s just trying to tell a good story artfully and vividly as well as pay tribute to one of the world’s great cities across two very distinct time periods.
Undeniably, he succeeds; Paris is as much a character here as Gil, and Allen takes great care to make us familiar with the city from the moments the opening credits, being a montage of establishing shots taken throughout the city of light, start rolling. For those who have visited Paris, the experience may well be transporting; for those of us who have never set foot in its streets, Allen expertly defines Paris’ geography with beautiful precision and makes it not only comprehensible as a location but even familiar. For both audience demographics, Allen gives Paris life through his camera, and it becomes a living, breathing organism rather than a collection of stone, mortar, and aged opulence.
Allen’s also tipping his hat to the literary and artistic figures Gil encounters as he carouses across town with the Fitzgeralds, F. Scott and Zelda (Tom Hiddleston and Alison Pill), Cole Porter, Salvador Dali (Adrien Brody), and innumerable others. Indeed, the name-dropping here almost becomes exhausting at a certain point, but I can see that being the intent as our audience identification character, Gil, is himself overwhelmed by the number of 1920s society cultural luminaries he meets each time he hops in the cab and time warps. Truthfully there’s some fun to be had in playing “Where’s Waldo?” and counting off how many of them you recognize, and I actually wonder if Allen maybe was also aiming to foster a sense of discovery in the 1920s scenes. Regardless, he’s painting each character in broad strokes, but this makes sense given that this is Gil’s story and can’t accommodate nuanced portrayals of the represented icons. Think of the iconic traits that mark them, and that’s about as far as their characterizations go, with effective results– Stoll’s Hemingway in particular is a work of inspired genius.
I think Midnight in Paris is an ode to these supporting players and their time period first and foremost, but there’s an interesting bit of subtext regarding critical interpretation, specifically comparing the cold, purely scholarly and thoroughly rehearsed intellectualism espoused by the aforementioned Paul, and Gil’s bursting and infectious enthusiasm for the arts. In showcasing Paul’s undeniably impressive knowledge, the film actually underscores the failings of a critical approach in which analysis is formed based not on the individual’s personal reaction to a work of art but rather the recitation of facts and knowledge composed by other critics; Paul appreciates Picasso’s paintings based on what he’s read in a book more than for the feelings they elicit in him. Gil admittedly has an unfair advantage here since he gets to meet face to face with Picasso himself, but the time traveling cab can serve as a metaphor for how Gil’s unrestrained passion for the arts allows him to experience them in a way Paul can’t and yields insights superior to those of the better educated but joyless man. Truthfully, this is sort of a half-baked thesis, but it’s one that I had rolling around in my head after watching the film and one I might come back to in an essay one of these days– if the theme is secondary, it’s still there, and worth thinking about and exploring in the future.
Midnight in Paris obviously worked for me. Truly great Allen is hard to come by these days, and he’s turned out a really wonderful, endlessly jubilant celebration of an era and a collection of essential writers, poets, filmmakers, painters, and songwriters that works as a total story and not just a self-indulgent bit of homage. It’s also a great turnaround for Wilson, whose jittery neurotic tendencies fit the archetypal Allen protagonist but whose charm and attitude leave his character and performance feeling distinct nonetheless. I’m behind on my movies so far this year, but I can definitely peg this as one of my favorites of 2011 to date; Allen’s made a movie that’s breezy and pleasant to sit through, but one that ultimately resonates and feels profound even in its simplicity and its easiness.