I have made my feelings about Woody Allen quite clear. I love his mind, but not the shell that it is forced to inhabit through some cruel cosmic joke. If Allen’s mind is a super computer, then his persona is the equivalent of two cans tied together with a frayed piece of yarn.
This actually helps – whenever I see any of this films, I have no clue what is in store. It could be a comedic gem (like Bullets over Broadway or Annie Hall) or it could be the next permutation of a neurotic man whose life would be a lot better if he just spent a little bit more time with a tissue and a copy of Leg Show (like The Curse of Jade Scorpion or…Annie Hall). Either way, his films are undeniably his, so I am grateful. The man is committed to his own obsessions, whatever they may be. And when it works, there is nothing better.
Thankfully, Midnight in Paris is a film in which all of Allen’s tricks work exactly as he intended them to.This is his finest film in at least twenty years, maybe even the finest of his long career. Allen’s biggest challenge has always been to find a way to make his audiences connect to the neurotic drips that inhabit his universe. Here, he succeeds. The film does not teach anything about the artists and figures that Allen surrogate Gil so admires. But it does offer a glimpse into his obsession with them. Everyone, I know, has had the fantasy that plays out in this film. Films are meant to help make these sort of dreams come true. And Allen, rather than trying to be as post modern as possible (constantly, for example, having characters comment on what is happening and how absurd , simply lets it all happen. The film is a wondrous trip that I hope a lot of people manage to take.
The plot concerns a Hollywood screenwriter named Gil (Owen Wilson) who is visiting Paris with his fiance Inez (Rachel McAdams). While she becomes infatuated with the pseudo-intellectual Paul (Michael Sheen), Gil seems lost in his own world, one that is obsessed with the past. While strolling through the streets of Paris one night, he gets into an old car. This car takes him to a party where Gil finds himself rubbing shoulders with the likes of F. Scott Fitzgerald (Tom Hiddleston), Ernest Hemingway (Corey Stoll) and a woman named Adrianna (Marion Cotillard), whom Gil finds himself falling in love with. He keeps going back to the past to meet more historical figures and to see if he can develop a romance with Adrianna.
I would have thought that it is difficult to find a good Allen surrogate. Owen Wilson has proved me wrong. Wilson embodies everything that Alvy Singer did – from the obsession with old music to the underhanded jabbing of the ribs of the right-wing. This was the first time that I realized how subtle an actor Wilson really is. His breathless enthusiastic delivery fits the material quite well.
Actually, the entire film feels like a sort of logical conclusion to Allen’s expansive filmography. Allen’s characters have always acted like they wanted to seek out a past golden age that never really existed to begin with. He has worked on having characters break with reality before (Midnight in Paris is essentially The Purple Rose of Cairo in reverse) but this one just feels as it should. Even the usually pretentious jokes come off as fun, because they feel organic to the situation the characters find themselves in. My personal favorite moment involves Gil telling Luis Bunuel the entire plot of The Exterminating Angel as something he needs to mull over (“I don’t understand” says Bunuel “why don’t they just leave the room?”).
I know that there are many academics who will watch this film and be in awe of the amount of information and references that Allen managed to include. Some will even try to cite the film as proof that the modern society is losing its literacy. It is all true, but it is not the point of the film. That information is best contained in the book, which I actually would like to read. This film (and all films) are about feelings, emotions, and desires.
Using that criteria, Midnight in Paris is a masterpiece that must be seen. Allen sets the mood with the Parisian montage (which also mirrors a similar technique in Manhattan) and that feeling of good will never lets up. The entire film helps to advise people to get on with their lives and stop pining for things long past. It is why I have never trusted nostalgia. It is easy to tell people that fact, but it is a far greater challenge to actually show them the unfortunate implications of nostalgia. Allen’s film does so, and does so well. The references (even the obscure ones) work because each of the actors portraying those artists embody the passions that surrounded the actual people. Adrian Brody should be given praise for his portrayal of Salvador Dali, even if he doesn’t much resemble him) Allen made the film with his heart, as opposed to his mind.
This film means something else, something that actually fits into the nostalgic themes of previous Allen films. These days, it almost seems like the era of the auteur is some distant memory. Most films are the results of committees – committees that fight, cannot agree on good plot points, and mostly pander to the lowest common denominator. I have often found myself wishing to go to the past, when films were “better.” Going out to see a film has almost become a chore. Allen has shown me the error of my ways simply by making this film. No matter how good or bad Allen’s films are, they make the act of movie going worthwhile. Allen’s bizarre persona and brilliant mind both work together with this film to make one of the best films so far this year.