When Woody Allen left his treasured New York setting and took his movies abroad, he brought his characters with him. With “Midnight In Paris,” his second feature shot in Europe since his brief return home for 2009’s “Whatever Works,” Allen assembles a familiar cast of troubled people with a slight, entertaining touch. This time, however, he not only travels to a new country, but a different time–several, in fact.
Owen Wilson plays an aspiring novelist and hack screenwriter inexplicably capable of traveling to the roaring twenties every night during the late hour indicated by the title. There, he grows chummy with his romantic idols like F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, leading him to view his modern-day life in increasingly dour terms. Despite the magical hook, however, “Midnight in Paris” is mostly a conventional and generally satisfying example of Woody Allen flexing his wit.
It’s the usual Allen formula: The small cast is a group of romantically confused, supremely neurotic individuals, most of whom view the bitchy male protagonist with extreme condescension. In this case, that would be Gil (Wilson), a whiny loner on a trip to Paris with his moody wife Inez (Rachel McAdams) and her stern Republican parents (Mimi Kennedy and Kurt Fuller). On a stroll after dinner one night, Gil finds himself lost on a dark city street and sits down in a huff, only to be rescued by a bustling old vehicle that pulls up out of nowhere and takes him to a party eight decades in the past. Soon, he’s wandering a giddy dance floor alongside the likes of Fitzgerald and his feisty wife, then coaxing advice for his novel from Hemingway and Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates).
There’s no question at this point that Gil represents the proverbial Woody Allen character in quite literal and somewhat lazy fashion, as Allen described an imaginary encounter between himself, Hemingway and Stein years ago in his short story “A Twenties Memory.” Although flimsily conceived, these scenes are sustained by the casual likability that Wilson brings to the lead role — no small feat for the challenge of embodying a prototypical Allen nebbish.
As he watches Hemingway give Fitzgerald harsh relationship advice, Wilson’s wide-eyed expression is priceless. If Allen turns movie stars into his hand puppets, at least they’re fun to watch. The rest of the cast all relish their roles, particularly those playing caricatures of real people: Bates is a stand-out, and Adrien Brody has an amusingly over-the-top cameo as Salvador Dalí. The turning point comes with the arrival of Picasso mistress Adriana (Marion Cotillard), an entrancing seductress and therefore Gil’s instant newest romantic interest. Learning of her affairs with other famous painters, he remarks, “You take art groupie to a whole new level.”
But the jokey references to historical figures take Allen into standard territory. Gil’s main nemesis is a heady academic named Paul (Michael Sheen), whose knowledge always wows Gil’s fiancee and leave him in the dust. That changes when they visit an art museum and Gil uses his newfound familiarity with the past to one-up his foe. In no subtle way, this development turns “Midnight in Paris” into a prolonged version of the Marshall McLuhan bit in “Annie Hall,” where Allen calls up the media scholar to discredit someone quoting him. Both then and now, Allen indulges in the fantasy of the dismantling pretentious blather with a mixture of matter-of-factness and prestidigitation.
Drawn out to feature length, the gimmick growing tiresome, although it holds onto its positioning in Allen’s self-made universe. That’s a place most audiences either love or hate with utter conviction. “Midnight in Paris” does justice to the universe without taking it in any new directions, as more tonally ambiguous outings like “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” did. In this comparatively ordinary mode, the one-liners run rampant, and the humor stays consistent solid. The best moments toy with the inherent silliness of pitting Gil against legends. (When he pitches “The Exterminating Angel” to a befuddled Luis Bunuel, the filmmaker responds, “I don’t get it. Why don’t they just walk out of the room.”)
Both past and present Paris are wonderfully lit by cinematographer Darius Khondji to bring out the mythological qualities of the setting, much as Allen used to portray an imaginative New York. Allen acknowledges the embellishments in the first scene, with Gil acknowledging, “There’s no city like this in the world…There never was.” Traveling to the past, Gil eventually learns that no romantic period can live up to its reputation. Still, Allen holds onto his vision of a Golden Age better than anyone else, even while readily acknowledging that it’s just a grand illusion.
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Having secured U.S. distribution with Sony Pictures Classics, the movie will get a nice publicity boost as the opening night film at Cannes and should perform to strong numbers, due to Allen’s built-in appeal and the star-studded cast.
criticWIRE grade: B