Midnight in Paris reminds again that Woody Allen is the proverbial phoenix of filmmakers, often discounted after a less-than-stellar project or another, then hitting one out of the park that you didn’t see coming. Over just the last few years, for example, the terrific Match Point (2005) was followed by the forgettable Scoop and Cassandra’s Dream; and then… Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008). Next, the minor-leaguers Whatever Works and You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger; and now… Midnight in Paris.
So the cycle continues. It’s difficult to not love a movie that opens as a visual paean to the beauty of Paris, an appropriate preamble to the chimeric confection that follows. Plot thin but fantasy rich, Midnight in Paris is held together by the Allen alter-ego here played by Owen Wilson, an actor I never thought to like as much I did in this performance – a soft, musingly dazy portrayal that is never less than enchanting. His character, Gil, a Hollywood scriptwriter who yearns to be a novelist, is in the City of Light on a business trip with his prosaic fiancée Inez (Rachel McAdams), a not-so-soulmate for an aspiring artist with a dream driving his heart.
It all unfolds with bells at the stroke of midnight, as a wandering Gil is picked up in a backstreet alley by revelers in a classic Peugeot that is clearly from another time. And then the real party begins. We’re back in 1920s Paris, with a cast of characters that makes Gil feel like the ultimate stranger in paradise. Scott and Zelda, Cole Porter, Ernest Hemingway…and that’s just the beginning.
The literary and artistic giants of the period will populate the late evening hours for Gil, and also provide an opportunity for his novel-in-progress to be critiqued by no less than Gertrude Stein (an excellently cast Kathy Bates.) Gil also hooks up with the lovely Adriana, lover to Modigliani, Picasso, and Braque (“That takes art groupie to a new level,” he tells her), played by a lingeringly luminous Marion Cotillard. Adriana is only further evidence for Gil of what is lacking in his current life, as if he needed even more of a catalyst.
The time-traveling is a lot of fun: one scene has Gil providing a perplexed Luis Buñuel with the setting for the Spanish filmmaker’s future masterpiece, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie; another has him sharing surrealistic thoughts with Buñuel, Man Ray, and a whimsical Salvador Dalí (Adrien Brody). And it never for a moment seems silly or affected: the film juxtaposes past and present in an imperceptible flow.
The director’s main point is that whatever the generation or epoch, it’s inevitable to look back, especially at the glorious eras in history that preceded us, with a longing for all that was “golden.” Which is what makes the conclusion of the film, whereby the past (via the music of Cole Porter) brings Gil to his future in the movable feast that is Paris, so satisfying.
It’s also Allen’s way of saying: as long as Paris exists, who needs any other time or place?