In Woody Allen’s latest movie, he offers some advice probably intended for himself: don’t live in the past, man up, and don’t be so wishy-washy. Of course, it sounds better coming from Ernest Hemingway and Gertrude Stein.
Back to the Golden Age
Gil (Owen Wilson playing the Woody Allen role) is in Paris with his fiancé (Rachel McAdams) and her parents, and he loves it. He is reinvigorated by the sights of the city, the feel of the rain, and the tingle of history. It’s the perfect place to finish his novel. The only thing better would be to see it in the 1920s with Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Josephine Baker.
Inez doesn’t see it that way. She thinks Gil should be happy continuing to write scripts for Hollywood and get over his obsession with Paris. If she thought about it, she might conclude that Gil doesn’t deserve Paris nearly as much as their friend Paul (Michael Sheen), who speaks French, has been invited to lecture at the Sorbonne, and even corrects their tour guides on points of fact. (Sheen’s insufferable knowitall is one the film’s best jokes — it was delightful to find out from Wikipedia that he was in fact wrong.)
After a fight with Inez one night, Gil goes walking and sits down on some stone steps, absorbing the midnight air. He is invited to join a party in the back of a vintage automobile, which whisks him to Paris of the 1920s. After overcoming his disorientation he finds himself face to face with his artistic heroes. He has fan-boy moments with Cole Porter and Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald.
The next morning he’s back in 2010, more at odds with his fiancé and future in-laws than ever before, and at midnight he waits for the car that will take him back to the Golden Age, where this time Gertrude Stein agrees to critique his novel about a man who works in a nostalgia shop. He meets Hemingway. He falls for one of Picasso’s muses (Marion Cotillard, who played Edith Piaf). He pitches a script to Luis Buñuel.
Doomed to Repeat
Allen’s comedy is refreshingly focused. The dialogue, the jokes, and the one-liners all pertain to Gil’s (and Allen’s) obsession with the past. Gil’s future in-laws shop for antiques, and Paul the knowitall spouts off on Picasso. Gil’s first-hand experience with the past gives these scenes a wry ironic twist. A girl who sells antiques catches Gil’s eye when he buys a Cole Porter record from her. She likes her work because the antiques inspire her, not for their monetary or intellectual value, which makes her a better match for Gil than his fiancé.
Lest you missed the theme, Adriana (Cotillard), who lives in the ’20s, suffers from the same syndrome — “Golden Age Thinking.” She too believes that the past was superior to the present, and that nobody alive today (that is, in the 1920s) can hold a candle to the greats from the previous century like Tolouse-Lautrec, Degas, and Gaugin.
Through it all runs the early-era jazz music that Woody Allen has been using for decades.
If Adriana’s diagnosis is a little obvious for the audience, at least it gives Gil perspective on what he’s doing wrong. Also helping in the “perspective” department are Gertrude Stein’s and Ernest Hemingway’s reviews of his book.
Midnight in Paris is a well-crafted fantasy and a lightweight bit of summer entertainment. Wilson is an inspired choice for a Woody Allen hero. He’s introspective, wishy-washy, and talkative. He’s also very likeable, especially next to the likes of Paul and his future in-laws. But the best thing about Midnight in Paris may be that Allen keeps the film on track, tackling a subject that must have haunted him for years.