Midnight in Paris
Directed by: Woody Allen
Written by: Woody Allen
Starring: Owen Wilson, Rachel McAdams, Marion Cotillard, and Corey Stoll
Finally, the first movie of the summer that deserves the label “art.” Woody Allen continues his stroll through Europe with this weird, touching, and hilarious trip through the streets of Paris. Midnight in Paris was the opener of this year’s Cannes Film Festival, mostly because it’s everything the French love: funny, beautiful, and set in France.
Allen’s career has been an almost definitive representation of the “on-again, off-again” method of filmmaking. He cranks out movies like nobody’s business, and many of them are masterpieces. Some of them, especially recently, have been almost universal flops. He is at his best when he takes the usual characters- neurotic artist, muse, pretentious academic- and puts them in something that isn’t about them.
Character types are not the only thing Allen is famous for. He connects with his real-world settings like few other directors do. The cities he falls in love with are just as much characters as the people he places in them.
His latest film is a love letter to the City of Love; much as Manhattan fetishized the Big Apple, Allen begins Midnight in Paris with an extended montage of the city’s more common attractions as well as miscellaneous street corners and cafes. We go from day and sunshine toward rain and night, which gives the sequence meaning outside of its beauty. This movie is about acceptance and changing perceptions; night and downpours do not mean bad things are coming.
Owen Wilson plays Gil, the latest on-screen avatar of Woody Allen. Wilson fares much better than Larry David did from the unfortunate if well-intentioned endeavor in Whatever Works. Gil shows the Allen neurosis with a spot of writer’s block. He wants to branch off from writing screenplays and into writing novels. You can deduce that Allen also wanted to do this, so he just wrote a screenplay where his on-screen representation does it for him.
Meta moments like this are used as a point of humor in Midnight in Paris, but eventually emerge as a point of the movie much like this year’s Scream 4. Gil comes to revelations at the same point the audience does. He longs for the Paris of the 1920s, and when he gets his wish he comes to find that the people in that era long for a different Golden Age.
If Paris marks a return to greatness for Allen, it also marks a departure into the weird. Gil’s desire to escape his apathetic fiance (Rachel McAdams), her unbearable friend (Michael Sheen), and materialistic, Republican parents (Kurt Fuller and Mimi Kennedy) actually takes him to the different periods in Paris’ history.
A collective “Who’s Who” of American and European art pop up, from Hemmingway and Gertrude Stein to F. Scott Fitzgerald and Salvador Dalí. Along with these come cameos from several venerable Hollywood performers to portray them. These artists are not the point; it’s the muses that he focuses on in many of his films. Here that role is played by Marion Cotillard, who supersedes McAdams’ role as the overbearing fiance to become a true inspiration to Gil.
Usually the term “muse” means not just that the character is female, but also takes the backseat. Not so here, or in many other Woody Allen films. He has written many great parts for women, and they are typically the most interesting roles in the film. Penélope Cruz won an Oscar for her incendiary portrayal in Vicky Cristina Barcelona, and Diane Keaton can be credited for matching the Allen neurotic blow for blow in many of his films.
Cotillard does great things in the role of Adriana, but sadly Rachel McAdams is mostly an afterthought and treats her character as such. Most of what she does happens while Gil is off with Adriana and famous artists, so you never really forge a connection with her. It rarely hurts the film but those looking for McAdams to take on a true Woody Allen character will have to wait for another pairing.
As this director and the fictional writer first pose an interest in being born in a different era, they eventually emerge with the knowledge that the past is glorified, and the present villified. The sincerity of this film is almost disarming, especially since it comes from one of the quickest wits and biggest cynics in film history. Allen remains a romantic, though, both in his love of humanity and in the sprawling cities they inhabit. He makes good art in beautiful cities about people making good art in beautiful cities.