One of his latest, funnier films: Midnight in Paris ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 11, 2011)

Dr. Drew-please help me. I’m a wreck. This is only the first line for my review of Midnight in Paris, and already I’m feeling defensive. Why is that? When will I be able to review a Woody Allen movie without feeling obliged…no, strike that…duty-bound to append superlatives with a qualifier like “…in years”. You know-as in, “This is Woody Allen’s best film…in years!” Why can’t I just say “This is a great film”? Is it the vacillating quality of his work over the last two decades? Or is it me? Am I stuck in the past? Have I become one of those sniveling fans Woody parodied in Stardust Memories-wringing my hands over the fact that his recent work is nothing like the “earlier, funny films” he made in the days of my golden youth? Wait…what’s that ringing in my ears? I feel nauseous. Oh, Jesus, I hope it isn’t a brain tumor. Uh, hello? Dr. Drew? Dr. Drew?

We’ve lost our connection, so back to the review. Allen continues the 6-year European travelogue that began in England (Match Point, Scoop, Cassandra’s Dream), trekked to Spain (Vicky Cristina Barcelona) then after a respite in N.Y.C. (Whatever Works) headed back to the U.K. (You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger) before settling in the City of Light for this romantic fantasy. Allen opens the film Manhattan style-with a montage of iconic Paris landmarks (strikingly captured by City of Lost Children DP Darius Khonji and co-cinematographer Johanne Debas). We are introduced to a successful but artistically unfulfilled Hollywood screenwriter named Gil (Owen Wilson).

Gil is engaged to Inez (Rachel McAdams). The two of them have tagged along with Inez’s parents (Kurt Fuller and Mimi Kennedy) who are in Paris on a business trip. Gil and Inez view Paris from differing perspectives. Inez is excited about the shopping and the tourist attractions, plus the fact that her bubbly friend Carol (Nina Arianda) is also in town with her boyfriend Paul (Michael Sheen), a pompous art professor who has been invited to speak at the Sorbonne. Gil, on the other hand, is one of those nostalgia junkies who tend to wax melancholic about “being born at the wrong time”.

To be sure, part of him does appreciate being alive in the 21st century, but if he had his druthers, he would gladly swap his luxury Malibu digs for Paris (the perfect place to polish the draft of his first novel). If he pushed the fantasy to its limits, Paris in the 1920s would be ideal; consorting in Left Bank cafes with Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Eliot and Stein. Meanwhile, Inez and her parents hope Gil’s romanticized musings are just a silly phase that he’s going through.

To Gil’s chagrin, Inez appears enraptured by Paul’s windy professorial pontificating about the landmarks they visit (at one point, he self-importantly “corrects” a French tour guide on trivia regarding a Rodin sculpture). While Inez admires his “brilliance”, Gil sees Paul for what he really is-an insufferably arrogant pedant. Pseudo-intellectuals have been one of Allen’s pet targets over the years; in a later scene where Gil finds himself in a unique position to stymie the ever-chattering Paul , I was reminded of that classic “I happen to have Marshall McLuhan right here” moment in Annie Hall.

One evening, after Gil has done a little more wining than dining, he takes a head-clearing, late-night stroll back to the hotel, leaving a less-than-pleased Inez on her own to go out partying with Carol and Paul. Gil finds himself lost in the labyrinth of Paris’s narrow backstreets.

As he stops to rest and get his bearings, the bells begin to toll midnight. At that moment, a well-preserved vintage Peugeot Landaulet pulls up, seemingly out of nowhere. A lively group of well-oiled young party people invite him to hop on in and join their revelry. With a “what the hell” shrug, Gil accepts the invitation. Now, so I don’t risk spoiling your fun, I won’t tell you much more about what ensues. Suffice it to say that this will be the first of several “transportive” midnight outings that will change Gil’s life.

Allen re-examines many of his signature themes-particularly regarding the mysteries of attraction and the flightiness of the Muse. He also offers keen insights about those who romanticize the past. Do we really believe in our  hearts that everything was better “then”? Isn’t getting lost in nostalgia just another way to shirk responsibility for dealing with the present?

Earlier I made a tongue-in-cheek analogy between Allen’s “earlier, funny films” and the “days of my golden youth”. Were Woody’s movies really “funnier” then-or are they merely  portals back to a carefree time when I still had my whole life ahead of me? Lest you begin to think that this is one of his Bergman-esque excursions-let me assure you that it’s not. It’s romantic, intelligent, perceptive, magical, and yes…very funny. There’s a fantastic supporting cast, including Marion Cotillard, Kathy Bates and Adrien Brody. In fact, I will say this without qualification: This is a great film. Never mind, Dr. Drew…I’m cured!

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