Woody Allen is as associated with New York City as almost any filmmaker is with any city, but getting out of town in recent years has allowed Allen to get away from himself to a degree, and it's given oxygen to art that, in the late '90s, was becoming suffocated.
I'd argue that Allen's three best films since 1991's underrated landmark Husbands & Wives are all films shot overseas with Allen strictly behind the camera: 2005's London-set Match Point, 2008's Vicky Cristina Barcelona, and now Midnight in Paris.
Allen's French film is more personal and, perhaps not coincidentally, more romanticized than his English and Spanish sojourns, with postcard Paris opening credits — the Eiffel Tower, the Seine, the Arc de Triomphe, the Louvre, the Eiffel Tower again, all scored to some pre-bop jazz from Sidney Bechet — that come across as a flatter, brighter, emptier counterpart to those in Allen's earlier Manhattan. (Like nearly always, however, Allen's urban viewpoint is narrow, brooking no engagement with downbeat and/or non-white sections of the city.)
And while Allen's not on screen as an actor in Midnight in Paris, his persona is very much back on display, with Owen Wilson playing a variation on the Allen character as Gil, a successful screenwriter and frustrated novelist who finds artistic refuge in an idealized past.
Rather than struggling through a relatively strict impersonation, Wilson finds a nice balance here between Allen's nebbish and his own loopy beach-bum quality, offering a softer, more affable variation on the Allen persona.
Gil and his attractive fiancé Inez (Rachel McAdams) are tagging along with her conservative parents on a Paris business trip. While Inez and her parents busy themselves shopping, sightseeing, and complaining, Gil is more prone to wonderment. "I can see myself living here. I think the Parisians get me," Gil says.
Inez, who wishes her husband would quit messing with his novel and get back to lucrative Hollywood work, rolls her eyes. "You're in love with a fantasy," she says.
Like Allen, arguably, Gil is disdainful of modern culture even as it supplies his affluence, feeling like he belongs to an older, better time. And soon he gets his chance. One tipsy midnight, Gil goes on a solo walk around the city, getting into a taxi that drops him off in his idealized Paris of the 1920s.
The result is something like Woody Allen's Excellent Adventure. Gil ends up at a party with an American couple named Scott and Zelda, where Cole Porter plays piano, Ernest Hemingway broods in the corner, and Jean Cocteau is the guest of honor.
This material is made agreeable by a game, engaging cast, with Alison Pill (a scene-stealer before in Milk and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World) standing out as a feisty, fun-loving Zelda Fitzgerald and Marion Cotillard offering a romantic counterpart to Inez as a serial muse Gil meets as a model (and then some) for Picasso.
There's always been a bit of the adolescent intellectual to Allen and, here, as in so many previous films, he inserts a pedantic villain (Michael Sheen's know-it-all lecturer), a gambit dishonestly designed to position Allen's own cultural name-dropping and pontificating as positive by comparison. But here, in a movie that steps lighter than Allen seemed capable of a decade ago, the filmmaker indulges himself only so far.
When Gil visits a time and place he's long imagined as a cultural utopia, he finds that those living in it lament their time, wishing they could have lived during the "Belle Époque" of the late 19th century instead. This provokes in Gil what for Allen, at this stage in life, amounts to a sort of rueful optimism — that the present always feels unsatisfying only because life always feels unsatisfying.
Opening Friday, June 10th