Hemingway parodies are easy to find, but only Woody Allen’s Hemingway would consider, “Have you ever shot a charging lion?” to be a great pickup line.
Midnight in Paris, his glorious and funny new film, is distinctively Allen’s and easy to situate in his career: thematically it’s Manhattan meets The Purple Rose of Cairo, romanticizing Paris instead of New York, sending the hero back to the 1920’s instead of the Depression. But that formula doesn’t hint at the fresh energy that makes this comic romance his best work since Vicky Cristina Barcelona and for a long while before that.
Owen Wilson is supremely comfortable as Gil, a Hollywood screenwriter who is visiting Paris with his shallow, ill-suited fiancee, Inez (Rachel McAdams), and her parents. Gil is finally trying to write his artistic novel while Inez shops and flirts with Paul, (Michael Sheen) her pretentiously intellectual former professor.
This setup uses Paris for all its beauty (Darius Khondji is the cinematographer) but it’s nothing special until, roaming the streets on a lonely midnight walk, Gil is picked up by a mysterious old yellow Peugeot and transported to the era he so idolizes: Paris in the 20’s, a time and place so crawling with artists that even Hemingway romanticized it. (A Moveable Feast feels like a trifle, but it’s his most culturally influential work.)
Gil lands at a party for Jean Cocteau, where he meets an all-star lineup, beginning with Scott and Zelda (Tom Hiddleston and Alison Pill, with Wilson above), who introduce him to Hemingway. In other hands this concept would be twee, or sophomoric, but Allen makes it hilarious and sophisticated because the actors are so perfect and the lines so satirically sharp.
Corey Stoll is especially funny as the ultracompetitive Hemingway, who refuses to read Gil’s novel, but promises, “I’ll bring it to Gertrude Stein.” She’s played as the wise, literary mother hen by – is this genius casting? – Kathy Bates.
Night after night Gil returns to the past. At one point he tries to explain to his drinking partners, Salvador Dali (played with just the right egotistical flourish by Adrien Brody) and Man Ray, that he’s from the future. “So far, I see nothing strange,” Man Ray says.
“Yeah,” says Gil. “You’re Surrealists.” Unlike so many other actors, Wilson doesn’t turn into a dithering Woody Allen impersonator; Gil is absolutely natural.
The satiric lines and acting are what make Midnight in Paris funny; what makes it smart is that Allen so knowingly toys with romanticism. Just as the hero of Manhattan says of himself “He adored New York City. He … romanticized it out of all proportion,” Gil knows he’s stepped into a glorified fantasy of a golden age. And just as he does in Manhattan, here Allen lets us indulge that romanticized vision even though we’re aware it’s a fantasy. It’s a neat balancing act, and he never misses a step.
In his magical past, Gil meets and falls for Adriana (Marion Cotillard) lover and muse of Picasso, previously lover and muse of Braque and Modigliani. “My God, you take art groupie to a whole new level,” he tells her. Being from the 20’s, she of course idolizes the Belle Epoque, which she’s certain is a much superior era.
Gil knows better, and, really, so does everyone else in the film. “You’re in love with a fantasy,” Inez says of Gil’s plan to live and write in contemporary Paris. She has no idea how fantastic his nights are; she thinks a brain tumor is causing his Hemingway hallucinations. Paul says, “Nostalgia is denial … denial of the painful present.” He may be a horse’s ass, but he’s not wrong about that. Midnight in Paris shows us that we can recognize the Moveable Feast as a myth, and live happily inside it for a while anyway.
There are minor things to quibble with in the film; it’s hard to believe Gil and Inez were ever head-over-heels or even attracted to each other much. But Midnight is Paris is so delicious I wanted to see it over again as soon as it ended.
Of course, if you slept through high school English or Art History 101, never mind.
Here’s the very sly trailer, which reveals none of the true magic.