Midnight in Paris (2011): Woody Allen Charming (if Minor) Romance

 In its good and clever moments, which are plentiful, “Midnight in Paris” is a charming, whimsical time-travel tale, which serves as Woody Allen’s love letter to the City of Lights—come rain or shine (literally and metaphorically).
World-premiering as opening night of the 2011 Cannes Film Fest, “Midnight in Paris” will be released by Sony Classics in the U.S. on May 20.
In many respects, the movie is a return to form for Allen. It’s more concise, more entertaining, and more commercially appealing than “You Will Meet a Tall and Handsome Stranger,” which opened last year’s Cannes Film Fest, and turned out to be both an artistic and commercial flop.
With strong critical support, Sony Classic could score big with Allen’s energetic and inventive comedy, which deals with adults (even if the characters are both childish and child-like) and is made for adults.
As a fable-fantasy, “Midnight in Paris” replays and rehashes themes and ideas that have appeared in previous Allen romantic comedies. Thus, centering on Americans abroad, it bears strong resemblance to “Vicky Cristina Barcelona,” except that here the romantic protagonist and Allen’s alter-ego is a Waspish-looking male (well played by the tall, slender, blond and long-haired Owen Wilson). Not surprisingly, Wilson’s character hails from L.A., a commercially viable Hollywood screenwriter, who feels he’s “sold out” but still aspires to be a serious novelist.
Comparisons will also be made between “Midnight in Paris” and “The Purple Rose of Cairo,” Allen’s bittersweet comedy, set during the height of the Depression, in which Mia Farrow plays Cecilia, a mousy New Jersey housewife, who survives her harsh life and abuse of her brutish husband (Danny Aiello) by escaping into the world of movies. In the process, she falls for the charming Jeff Daniels, who plays two parts, a swashbuckling hero and the insecure actor who embodies that screen image.
The intermittently charming comedy is based on a single idea, which then gets numerous variations, reverberations, characters, and sub-plots. Allen suggests that, no matter what age you live in, you always feel that a former era—be it the Golden Age or La Belle Époque or the Renaissance—was more gratifying and fulfilling¸ both individually and collectively. In this respect, “Midnight in Paris,” is Woody Allen’s “Look Back in Love,” to paraphrase the title of John Osborne’s play.
“Midnight in Paris” takes the binary concepts of reality versus illusion, a contrast that prevails in several Allen’s pictures, and changes it into a contrast between the past and the present. It shows how the past, no matter how idealized and glamorized it is, can encroach in magical, transformative, and unpredictable ways into the present, altering in the process identities and relationships, ambitions and plans.
This is the second film that Allen has shot in Paris, after the 1996 romantic comedy “Everyone Say I Love You,” though until this movie he has never based an entire narrative in Paris. A totally new ensemble of actors does not necessarily makes the text fresher, but it certainly helps in moving the story along, grounding it in amore recognizable reality, due to the fact that there are no mega-stars.
Gil Bender, the film’s hero, is a successful Hollywood scribe who has not given up his aspiration to become a “serious” writer in the vein of Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Faulkner, all of whom he has idolized as a youth.
 When the saga begins, Gil and his fiancée Inez (Rachel McAdams, this time as a blonde) are in Paris with Inez’s obnoxiously bourgeois parents, John (Kurt Fuller) and Helen (Mimi Kennedy). It soon becomes clear hat Gil and John simply despise each other. A Conservative businessman, who has come to Paris to finalize a high-level deal, John makes no effort to disguise his disapproval of Gil, who he sees as an unreliable man, a lightweight unworthy of his precious daughter. John is a hardcore Republican, who thinks that Gil is a Communist, because he always sides with the helpers (like the hotel’s maid).
To be sure, Gil, like all of Allen’s creations, is a flawed hero, a self-absorbed, insecure, and narcissistic man. But he’s also innocent, idealistic, and incurably romantic. Gil is totally immersed in the first novel he’s just written, but he won’t show it to anyone for fear of criticism, which makes him even more frivolous and suspicious in John’s eyes.  

Spending time in Paris and visiting its glorious sites triggers Gil’s memories of his one-time literary aspirations. We learn that Gil lived in Paris when he was young and that he still harbors romantic attachment to the city, as a real and mythic place.

Claiming that he needs some space for himself, Gil takes walks, sits in coffee shops, visits bars and clubs, and reflects upon his dreary life thus far. Through plot machinations that cannot be disclosed here, Gil embarks on time travel night after night, during which he gets to meet Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Gertrud Stein and her companion Alice, Hemingway, Luis Bunuel, Salvador Dali, Pablo Picasso, among many literary and artistic figures of Paris in the 1920s.

 Meanwhile, Inez spends time with Paul (Michael Sheen), a handsome intellectual who is in Paris with his wife Carol (Nina Arianda), lecturing at the prestigious school of the Sorbonne. Ever since high-school, Inez has been smitten with Paul, who represents the best combo of qualities, a man who’s cerebral yet charismatic. In contrast, Gil (who’s not aware of his wife’s affair with him), perceives Paul as a stuffed shirt—an insufferable, pretentious, know-it-all snob.
It’s noteworthy that, unlike most Allen’s comedies, which contain serious themes and dark overtones, “Midnight in Paris” is determinedly optimistic and unabashedly upbeat, propagating the notion that if you’re open minded and you’re in Paris, there’s endless range of possibilities of how to live (or not to live) your life.
It’s safe to say that “Midnight in Paris” is Allen’s best and most enjoyable film since “Vicky Cristina Barcelona,” even if the movie walks a fine line between self-reflexivity and self-plagiarism, between warm nostalgia and sheer sentimentalism.
As writer and director, Allen sides with Gil and all the French eccentric artists of the past, both recent and distant past. Of the contemporary characters, Rachel McAdams’ Inez comes off negatively, as a shrill, driven, and argumentative femme, set in her bourgeois ways and refusing to listen or compromise. It’s one of the actress’s least appealing performances.
As Allen’s surrogate, Owen Wilson not only looks and sounds differently than the auteur and his previous alter-egos, but he also manages to inject his own low-key, charming personality into the role—not a minor feat when working with Allen.
Continuing to show her diversity and range, Marion Cotillard is the ideal object of desire for Gil’s romantic dreams.  As Gertrude Stein, Kathy Bates, speaking English,French and Spanish, steals every scene she is in, evoking the noted lesbian writer’s tough manner and looks. The French first lady Carla Bruni is attractive and creditable enough to play her two or three scenes as a tour guide at the Rodin Museum; Allen is particularly enamored of the statue Thinking Man.
Corey Stoll at once embodies and spoofs Hemingway’s macho manner and pretentious statements about war, combat, honor, writing, sex and women.
If memory serves, this is the first collaboration of Allen with ace cinematographer Darius
Khondji, who gives the film a warm look with its yellow-golden palette, though I wish Allen went beyond shooting his scenes in Paris’ most touristy and iconic sites.
Gil – Owen Wilson
Inez – Rachel McAdams
Gert – Kathy Bates
Salvador – Adrien Brody
Museum Guide – Carla Bruni
Adriana – Marion Cotillard
Gabrielle – Lea Seydoux
Paul – Michael Sheen
Carol – Nina Arianda
John – Kurt Fuller
Helen – Mimi Kennedy
Ms. Fitzgerald – Alison Pill
Mr. Fitzgerald – Tom Hiddleston
Ernest – Corey Stoll
Production: Mediapro, Versatil Cinema,
Gravier Prods., Pontchartrain Prods.
Director-screenwriter: Woody Allen
Producers: Letty Aronson, Stephen Tenenbaum, Jaume Roures
Executive producers: Javier Mendez
Director of photography: Darius Khondji
Production designer: Anne Seibel
Costume designer: Sonia Grande
Editor: Alisa Lepselter
Running time: 94 minutes