Midnight in Paris is yet another example of Woody Allen’s uncanny ability to balance romance with cynicism, the magical with the realistic. Magic is almost a religion in his films, a cosmic force against which his characters are seemingly powerless. You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, Scoop, Melinda and Melinda and even Match Point rely on the metaphysical for a narrative push. The list goes on (Deconstructing Harry, Crimes & Misdemeanors, Mighty Aphrodite, The Purple Rose of Cairo, Interiors and more), but we have a film to discuss.
Here we have a writer, Gil (Owen Wilson), on vacation in Paris with his fiancé Inez (Rachel McAdams) and her wealthy parents (Kurt Fuller and Mimi Kennedy). Each night he wanders the streets alone only to be wisped away to Paris of the 1920s, where he rubs elbows with Ernest Hemingway (Corey Stoll), Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates) and Salvador Dalí (Adrien Brody) among others. Trying to give up being a Hollywood hack and move into novel writing, Gil latches onto his heroes during his late-night transdimensional excursions after being accepted into their inner circle. He also gets close with a mysterious Parisian, Adriana (Marion Cotillard), the pursuit of apparently every artisan of the day.
Back in the modern world, where Gil spends his days, he and Inez are trying to enjoy their privileged life as tourists in France, though it grows increasingly difficult once they run into American friends Paul (Michael Sheen) and Carol (Nina Arianda). Paul is an expert on everything, even things he knows very little about. He may or may not be Gil’s intellectual superior, but Inez is clearly convinced his words hold more weight than Gil’s prattling. He tries to bring Inez with him to the 1920s, but is unable to and so he is stuck with her as she is in 2010, cynical, bored and unappreciative of walking in the rain.
The smarter-than-he-realizes-out-of-work creative and the hardbodied- overbearing-unsupportive girlfriend may be Allen staples (see: Josh Brolin and Naomi Watts, Will Ferrell and Amanda Peet) but Owen Wilson brings something different to the table than the rest of Allen’s male protagonists. He is, well, he’s stupider but more virtuous than the others. His romantic view of the world makes him seem like a child, a quality that also allows him to recognize, unlike most Allen leads, the difference between right and wrong (for the most part).
I’ve heard idle chatter that this is a breakout performance for Wilson, but I think that’s patently false. He explored vacuity brilliantly in Ben Stiller’s Zoolander as Hansel, the idiotic male model who is enemy-cum-sidekick to the title character. Gil and Hansel are more similar than they are different; Allen simply helps hone Wilson’s likable silliness into something a role eminently more interesting than, say, John Beckwith of Wedding Crashers.
Many would like to categorize Allen’s work, perhaps saying he’s a comedian first and a dramatist second. Midnight in Paris doesn’t really fall under either, or at least benefits from his experience in both worlds. He trusts his audience enough to enter another era without having to explain the science behind time travel. He is also able to imbue the four epochs he enters with enough charm to not feel the need to overdo the “now we are in the 1920s” effect. I wouldn’t call it subtle, but it is far from over the top a la Stephen Fry’s Bright Young Things. Whenever we approach cliché, Allen capitulates to the audience that they are experiencing a plot point, winking at us as he follows sometimes damning conventions so we know it’s part of his scheme.
At its core, this is a film about nostalgia, its values and its pitfalls. Woody Allen fans may be even more nostalgic than the director himself, often clambering for him to return to the form that he is best known for from the 1970s and 1980s. Even though the bulk of his films share the same aging Windsor typeface (which has virtually no other purpose in our era than for his title cards) and soundtracks of classical and golden age jazz music, he has never stopped moving forward. Midnight in Paris is on track to become Allen’s most successful box office take ever, an indication that his audience is growing instead of depleting as is often assumed. That feeling that he should go back to making films like the ones he is best known for is driven by an unshakable nostalgia for bygone days. In actuality, he continues to make great work. How long until we look back on 2011 and wonder whether Allen will make films like the good old days again?