MIDNIGHT IN PARIS
Review By: Gordon K. Smith
In 1977’s Annie Hall (back in the days when we lived for the next Woody Allen flick),
there’s a classic scene in which, to prove to the know-it-all next to him in the movie line
that the guy knows zilch about the then-controversial media critic Marshall McLuhan,
Woody simply pulls the real McLuhan out of thin air, whereupon McLuhan proceeds to
refute everything the guy just said about him.
What could happen if you actually could meet your long-dead idols in the flesh forms
the inspiration for Allen’s latest writer/director effort, Midnight in Paris, his best film in
two decades, and certainly most likable since the often nasty turn his work took after his
personal scandals of the early ‘90s. It is also quite charming, a quality too-long missing
from Allen’s work.
Rather clearly standing in for the Woodman himself as the lead character is Owen
Wilson’s Gil, a successful Hollywood screenwriter of money-making crowd-pleasers
who’d rather be outputting serious novels like his muse F. Scott Fitzgerald. Gil is in
Paris with fiancée Inez (Rachel McAdams) and future in-laws on business, but soon
finds himself bedazzled not only by the city’s beauty (thanks to cinematographers
Darius Khondji and Johanne Debas) but the spirits of “the lost generation” ex-pats who
flocked to the City of Light in the 1920’s.
Gil finds himself mingling with those ghosts for real after accepting a midnight ride in a
vintage car in a dark corner of the city; without any spectacular effects or all-a-dream
fakeouts, he just walks into a club where Cole Porter’s playing “Let’s Fall in Love” on
the Steinway, the Fitzgeralds (Tom Hiddleston, Alison Pill) are buying him a drink and
Ernest Hemingway (Corey Stoll) offers to critique his novel-in-progress. Gil does the
Time Warp again every midnight, and during a literary consultation with Gertrude Stein
(Kathy Bates) he meets a stunning French girl (luminous Marion Cotillard) who can
easily change his mind about Inez, and has dreams of her own. Inez would rather
spend time fulfilling her own fantasy in modern Paris with Paul (funny Michael Sheen), a
pseudo-intellectual in the classic Allen style not far removed from the Annie Hall guy.
Other than a couple of awkward stammers and a jaw-dropping gape tossed out as
a wink to the audience, Wilson doesn’t try to impersonate Allen, as have some other
actors standing in for the comic genius now in his mid-’70s (for a prime example of that,
see Kenneth Branagh in 2000’s Celebrity). An Oscar nominee himself for cowriting
The Royal Tannenbaums, Wilson is convincing as a hack screenwriter with higher
ambitions, and plays Gil with the right balance of confusion, wonder, and wit. Allen
has a gift for spot-on casting in small roles, and every one of them is a gem in Midnight
in Paris; making the most of his brief screen time and stealing every second of it is a
hilarious eye-rolling Adrien Brody as Salvador Dali (another of Dali’s surrealist pals is
Luis Bunuel, which provides the set-up for a great film-buff in-joke).
Midnight is such a sweet and pleasant exploration of wish fullfillment that it’s hard to
find quibbles. I wish Allen had written a larger role for the Josephine Baker character
(she has a nonspeaking cameo); the final conversation between Wilson and Cotillard
is a bit too abrupt and spell-it-out-for-you of a wrap-up. Maybe this is Woody’s way of
maintaining his customary short running time (rarely much over 90 minutes), but this is
one time I would have happily stayed in this world another half hour.