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The promise of an enchanting Parisian fantasy from Woody Allen prepared this reviewer for a thrill that, very surprisingly, did not come together at all. So far this has been "love Woody Allen year", with a PBS special and major articles lauding his truly remarkable filmmaking career. I was mightily entertained by the director's '70s and '80s pictures, and not just the "early, funny ones". I even love his odd experiments in off-color humor (Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Sex But Were Afraid to Ask) and the curious (Zelig). I share conventional positive reactions to the series of movies in which he humanized his neurotic persona while developing a strong sentimental streak: Annie Hall (1977) through, say, Alice (1990). But soon thereafter Allen fell back on genre take-offs, stylistic take-offs, painfully inept musicals (Everyone Says I Love You) and movies that frankly played like retreads of his favorite European classics. 1 What was once light and airy in Allen movies became more forced as his characters slipped into tiresome sitcom patterns. That his pictures are consistently well made can't hide a gradual erosion of substance. I rushed to see Vicki Christina Barcelona but now cannot even remember what that movie was about. That's not like me at all.
It was disappointing to discover that Allen's supposed comeback picture Midnight in Paris is not much of an improvement. Gil (Owen Wilson) is a Hollywood screenwriter, which in Allen's world automatically makes him a dog in the manger of true artistic accomplishment. On an extended vacation in Paris with his status-conscious wife Inez (Rachel McAdams) and her well-heeled parents, Gil is upset by Inez's obvious attraction to Paul (Michael Sheen), an intellectual blowhard compelled to prove that he knows more than anybody else he meets, on any subject. Gil upsets Inez with his notions of ditching his affluent Malibu lifestyle for a pauper's life in Paris, to pursue his desired destiny as a writer. When Gil sloughs off invitations from Paul & Co., Inez complains that he'd rather live in his fantasies about his idols, the great Lost Generation writers of the 1920s. She couldn't be more correct. Waiting on a particular church's steps at midnight, Gil is picked up by an ancient car bearing F. Scott Fitzgerald and Zelda (Tom Hiddleston & Alison Pill). A few minutes later, he is in the 1920s, witnessing the creative chemistry between the greats: Ernest Hemingway (Corey Stoll), Cole Porter (Yves Heck), Pablo Picasso (Marcial Di Fonzo Bo), Salvador Dalí (Adrien Brody); Man Ray (Tom Cordier), Luis Buñuel (Adrien de Van), T.S Eliot (David Lowe). Zelda Fitzgerald is in an emotional state, Hemingway asserts his opinions about manhood and death, and the lucky Gil gets to take the manuscript of his first novel to be critiqued by none other than Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates). When he tries to explain to Inez what he's doing every midnight, Gil gets nowhere. He also begins to suspect that Inez is having an affair with that loose wick Paul. But he doesn't seem to mind, because in the 1920's world he has fallen in love with the fascinating Adriana (Marion Cotilliard), a cast-off Hemingway girlfriend with her own nostalgic ideas about a glorious past era of artistic enlightenment.
The slight story could be one of Woody Allen's one-page satirical articles that show up from time to time in The New Yorker. Exactly like those humor pieces, Midnight flatters fans of "smart" writing. It's an inside joke for readers aware of F. Scott Fitzgerald's problems with his beloved Zelda, and who know that wherever Gertrude Stein is, Alice B. Toklas shouldn't be too far away. Allen's concept / conceit is to recreate 1920s Paris and populate it with a terrific all-star gallery of literary luminaries. That much is fun, as far as it goes; the skits in the past are indeed cute. But Gil doesn't really engage with these people. His romantic problem is a silly trifle. The modern-day section is annoying (in the wrong way) and the big reveal of Allen's "Author's Message" is unsatisfying. That avid readers carry on vicarious fantasy lives in the past of great books is an interesting idea, but the surprise handed Gil feels like a limp revelation in a benign Twilight Zone episode. 2
Gil is not much more than a looky-loo in the past; he could very well be dreaming the fantastic episodes. The modern sections of Midnight are just a setup for the skits with the famous celebrities. Allen is critical of Gil's associates in the coarse modern world, but he forgets to give Gil with any particular redeeming qualities to make us feel he deserves better. Gil selfishly neglects Inez; he is just as narcissistic and thoughtless as his materialistic peers. Inez is probably convinced that Gil is spending his nights with another woman. Gil's dull insensitivity to the needs of others is never criticized, and neither is his desire to pose as an expatriate writer. Allen considers Gil's aspirations as a sort of Get Out of Jail Free card.
Now, some of my lack of sympathy with Gil's dilemma is personal. I didn't care if Gil was hit by a truck, or got disintegrated while passing between time periods. I have yet to see an Owen Wilson movie after Bottle Rocket in which I even began to like one of his characters. Wilson seemed perfect in that farce because his character was basically a moron. Midnight will surely be a completely different experience for Owen Wilson fans.
To illustrate how little real thought I believe went into Midnight in Paris, Allen toyed with the same idea in a brief scene 45 years ago in What's New, Pussycat? Woody and Peter O'Toole sit at a sunny sidewalk café in Paris, and Allen slips in several famous personalities behind them as amusing anachronistic throwaways -- Toulouse Lautrec, for example. Allen's doing the same thing here, on a much more ambitious scale. Just as in his New Yorker pieces, Allen has a gift for skit humor imitating the style of notable past writers. But these great characters are still little more than throwaways.
If your fantasy is to mingle briefly with a group of nicely cast and written "famous author & painter" impersonators, Midnight in Paris is the picture for you. All are dead-on accurate, and none of them does much except introduce themselves. Tom Hiddleston and Alison Pill are so charming that we wish we could see them as the Fitzgeralds in a straight biography. I suppose it fits Allen's theme that Fitzgerald ended his life in dishonor as a Hollywood screenwriter, like Gil. Corey Stoll's Hemingway reminds me of how much writer-director John Milius imitates the author's mannerisms. One needn't be too much of a culture vulture (a real no-class expression, hmm?) to spot a dazzling simulacrum of Josephine Baker. To Allen's credit, the reveal of these luminaries is completely unforced, a series of magical encounters in bars, in restaurants, at great parties, on the street.
If the film is a series of literary jokes, at least some of them are extremely clever. Allen pokes wicked fun at Luis Buñuel. Gil tempts "time travel" fate by describing to Luis a couple of ideas from the director's later films The Exterminating Angel and The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. Buñuel doesn't understand what Gil's talking about. The joke is possibly entirely accurate: depending on what year Gil has landed in, Buñuel might not yet be seriously thinking about making any kind of films, let alone surrealistic masterpieces.
Perhaps seeing that the brew is too thin, Allen tosses in a beautiful actress or three (Nina Arianda, Carla Bruni), to give the dreary Gil somebody to talk to in the modern section. They also have no real function in the story. He launches Gil's fantastic adventure without much fanfare, which is not necessarily a bad thing. Movies that depend too much on the mechanics of philosophical time travel, even good ones, can end up chasing their tails, like Somewhere in Time or even Portrait of Jennie. However, just sitting around on some stone steps waiting for the Phantom Phaeton or whatever to toot its horn isn't a very romantic way to be transported to a magical Paree between the wars. This might not be a fair comparison, but Midnight in Paris isn't one-tenth the movie that Allen's own wonderful The Purple Rose of Cairo is. That picture's tension between fantasy and reality has emotional depth, and much bigger laughs. Midnight is nicely produced and smoothly directed, but it ends up feeling very, very lightweight.
Sony's Blu-ray of Midnight in Paris is a sparklingly beautiful transfer of this very attractively filmed show. Johanne Debas & Darius Khondji give us pretty views of swank hotels and tourist locations like Versailles, and then floor us with Anne Seibel's rich, dark interiors for the earlier era. The yellowish interior lighting in those sequences brings out even more of a period flavor.
The Blu-ray disc comes with a featurette (Midnight in Cannes) and a gallery of cast and crew photos.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Midnight in Paris Blu-ray rates:
1. For just one example, I got only a few minutes into Sweet and Lowdown before realizing that it was an unacknowledged, almost scene-for-scene remake of Fellini's La Strada. I'm surprised Allen wasn't criticized for that one; it was instead labeled as an homage.
2. Master screenwriter Allen knows very well the pitfalls of planting shallow messages in film dialogue. He more than once lampooned the practice in his outright comedies. I almost expected to see a flashing sign reading "Author's Message" near the end of Midnight, just like the cartoon example in Woody's disowned farce What's New, Pussycat?
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T'was Ever Thus.