Movie Review: Midnight in Paris
The Charlotte Observer
Woody Allen stands alone among writer-directors whose careers started in the 1960s, swiftly and regularly hand-crafting at least one movie every year. At 75, he sticks to his workbench like a cobbler making shoes that are no longer in fashion but delight a certain class of patron.
"Midnight in Paris," a hymn to that beautiful city, is among his least consequential efforts. It's attractive and easy to slip into, but he didn't put enough thought into the design, and it soon falls apart.
Owen Wilson has taken on the mantle Allen used to impose on everyone who played romantic leads for him. He's Gil Pender, a successful hack writer of screenplays who fears he lacks lasting literary talent, a genial man with a romantic streak who stammers and waves his hands while explaining his eternally youthful philosophy of life.
That philosophy doesn't sit well with Inez, his stuffy fiancée (Rachel McAdams), her pedantic chum of a pal (Michael Sheen) and her right-wing, materialistic parents. But Gil, who used to live in Paris and is back for a visit, wishes he could move there. In fact, he wishes he could move there in the 1920s, when F. Scott Fitzgerald drank and Cole Porter played his new songs at parties and Ernest Hemingway challenged his friends to boxing matches.
Miraculously, Gil lives out his fantasy: As he mopes about the streets at midnight, an antique Peugeot whisks him off to a soiree where everyone dresses like a flapper or drinks bathtub gin. There he falls for Adriana (Marion Cotillard), who has been the mistress of Modigliani and Braque and has now settled in with a Spanish painter named Pablo Picasso.
As Gil spends days in the present with querulous Inez and evenings in the Jazz Age with mysterious Adriana, he wonders where he should settle forever. Allen doesn't have anywhere to go with this idea, so he turns the past into a parade of famous faces who shallowly embody the usual conceptions of them. (Corey Stoll's stodgy Hemingway seems to converse entirely in quotations from his books.)
Gil never meets any ordinary people: He just keeps bumping into Salvador Dali (Adrien Brody), babbling in a pub about rhinoceroses, or surrealist filmmaker Luis Buñuel, who's puzzled at Gil's suggestion that he make a movie about people unable to walk out of a dinner party.
Allen expects us to know that Buñuel will shoot this idea decades later as "The Exterminating Angel," just as he expects us to know that Djuna Barnes (not otherwise identified) was a pioneering lesbian author, or that Josephine Baker (seen but not identified at all) was an obscure black American dancer who became a sensation in Paris.
But after mildly funny allusions, he's out of ideas. The movie makes pointless stabs at further time travel, and all the characters (the juvenile Gil included) remain types.
Allen might argue that a fairy tale requires only atmosphere, not complexity. Thus he makes every young woman in Paris alluring and lovely. He remains entirely among rich white people, where he always feels most comfortable. (I don't believe a person of color speaks in the film.)
Audiences who always like to follow Allen into his insular world may be happy to share his whimsy. The rest of us will wonder - as usual - what the fuss is supposed to be about.