Monday, July 18, 2011

Woody Allen Goes to Paris

You might hear Woody Allen's "Midnight in Paris" compared to "Manhattan," in that it's a love letter to an iconic city, or perhaps "Purple Rose of Cairo," for its high concept romantic comedy premise. But the important thing is that "Midnight in Paris" is pure Woody Allen, and moreover Allen at his most surefooted and delightful and crowd-pleasing.

Writer Gil Pender (Owen Wilson), trying to make the bumpy transition from Hollywood hack to serious novelist, visits Paris with his fianceé Inez (Rachel McAdams) and her parents (Kurt Fuller, Mimi Kennedy). A born romantic, Gil talks about moving to Paris and following in the footsteps of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, who converged on the city with so many of Gil's other literary and artistic idols in the 1920s. Inez tells him sweetly that he's dreaming. During the trip, they run across Inez's old fling Paul Bates (Michael Sheen), an insufferable pseudo-intellectual and know-it-all. Inez insists on sightseeing with Paul and his wife, but Gil can't stand him, and isn't too keen on the uncomfortable dinners with Inez's dismissive parents either. So one night, having had a little too much to drink, Gil takes a midnight stroll around the city by himself, and has a series of surprising encounters.

Now this is where we get into spoiler territory, and where I urge you to stop reading now if you plan to see the film yourself. Because when the clock strikes twelve, "Midnight in Paris" reveals itself to be a fantasy film, with a lot of surprises that work best if you don't know they're coming. However, reviewing the film requires giving some of those away, just to be able to pass the kudos around. As you may have guessed, Gil is transported back to the Jazz Age, and spends the night hobnobbing with F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald (Tom Hiddleston, Alison Pill), listening in on a performance by Cole Porter (Yves Heck), and sharing a drink with Ernest Hemingway (Corey Stoll). Subsequent midnight trips take him to the salon of Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates), where he runs into Pablo Picasso (Marcial Di Fonzo Bo) and his lovely mistress Adriana (Marion Cotillard) - who Gil falls head over heels for.

Some may balk at the thought of seeing a film that makes reference to so many half-forgotten luminaries, but the film isn't about them so much as it is about Gil's fanboy enthusiasm for a bygone age, and what happens to him as a result of his jaunts into the past. Picking up on the references is fun, but there were plenty that went over my head, which didn't affect my enjoyment of the picture at all. Allen portrays the characters that Gil meets in the 20s as a group of interesting, lively artists who are fascinating to watch on their own merits. Viewers who don't know Hemingway or the Fitzgeralds may come out of the film wanting to spend time with them, thanks to the stellar performances of Stoll, Hiddleston, and Pill. Corey Stoll as a bombastic young Hemingway is particularly magnetic.

And then there's Owen Wilson, who is certainly playing a Woody Allen leading man - the neurotic, romantic, overly talkative dreamer - and yet still manages to be the charming, everyman Owen Wilson we know from his mainstream comedies. And it's Wilson's comedic chops that go a long way toward making the premise work, from his stunned initial reactions to the 20s, to the never-ending reserve of enthusiasm each time he runs into a new icon, to the more farcical situations in the modern day. Rachel McAdams, I'm sorry to say, ends up with the thankless role of the shrewish fianceé who Gil should have parted ways with long ago, and doesn't get to exhibit many of her considerable charms. Marion Cotillard, on the other hand, is at her most endearing and sublime as the lovely muse with her own secret dreams.

Maybe I've been watching so many raunchy, dull-witted, tasteless modern comedies lately, that such a simple, old-fashioned confection from Woody Allen comes off as a better film than it really is. Measuring "Midnight in Paris" up against the rest of his work, it's clear that certain elements are awfully reminiscent of his other, better pictures. But when you see that gorgeous opening montage of Paris city shots, set to period jazz music, you may never think of Paris without hearing a saxophone again, just as the Manhattan skyline conjures George Gershwin's piano. And that one perfect, absurd gag at the end of the film could have come straight out of "Sleeper" or "Annie Hall," but it doesn't make it any less funny, or deftly executed.

"Midnight in Paris" is familiar Woody Allen, but it's all the best bits, in just the right amounts. The dialogue is sharp and clever, but isn't too erudite. It's funny and occasionally silly, without becoming too irreverent. The romance is tender and heartfelt, but never gets maudlin. The tone is right, the atmosphere is rich, and every single glowing frame conveys how much Woody Allen loves the city of Paris. At one point in the movie, Gil asks a museum docent whether she thinks it's possible that a man can be in love with two women. Longtime Woody Allen fans, who know the director as the consummate New Yorker, may be tempted to ask a variation on the same question - can an artist like Allen be in love with two cities?

Oh yes.

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