Woody Allen’s latest film, Midnight in Paris, has an appealing premise behind it.
Gil (Owen Wilson) is a Hollywood screenwriter who has come to Paris with his shallow fiancée Inez (Rachel McAdams) and her stuffy Republican parents (played by Kurt Fuller and Mimi Kennedy). Disillusioned with American culture, Gil idealizes the Paris of the 1920s, the Paris that was home to Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and James Joyce. However, Inez and her parents are far less impressed with Paris and, as quickly become clear, with Gil himself. While Inez spends her time with self-important “intellectual” Paul (a bearded Michael Sheen), Gil takes to wandering the streets of Paris at night.
One night, as Gil wanders around Paris, a vintage car approaches out of the shadows and the two well-dressed passengers in the back seat invite Gil to join them. Gil does so and discovers that he’s been transported back to 1920s Paris. He meets everyone from Hemingway (Corey Stoll) to Salvador Dali (Adrien Brody) to F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald (Tom Hiddleston and Alison Pill). At the end of the night, Gil finds himself transported back to modern-day Paris. Soon, Gil finds himself sneaking out at midnight every night so he can escape to the past, where he eventually meets and starts to romance an idealistic model named Adrianna (Marion Cotillard). While Gil finds himself torn between his modern life and the past that he loves, he also begins to discover that the inhabitants of the 20s feel the same way about their present as he does about his.
The premise of the film itself is likable and one that I think anyone can relate to. Who doesn’t wish that they could go back in the past and live with all the amazing people who they’ve only read about? Myself, there are many eras that I often fantasize about finding myself in. 1920s Paris is definitely one of them but I’ve also occasionally dreamed of being in 1950s New York, having a threesome with Kerouac and Cassady or maybe being in Paris during the early days of the French new wave, appearing in movies directed by Rollin, Truffaut and Godard. Ever since I read Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders and Raging Bulls, there’s been a part of me that wishes so much I could have been out in Hollywood or New York in the 1970s, hanging out on the beach with directors like Martin Scorsese, William Freidkin, Jon Milius, and even Peter Bogdonavich. (But especially Freidkin, his terrible charisma just radiates from the page.)
Still, Allen is smart enough as a screenwriter to know that everyone tends to idealizes the past, even those who we now idealize in the present. Perhaps my favorite part of the film came when Wilson, while in the 1920s, sees a character getting into a horse-drawn carriage so that she can go back to the time that she idealizes as fiercely as he idealizes the 20s.
Midnight in Paris has a lot to recommend it. Cotillard, despite the fact that she’s played the same idealized French mystery woman about a thousand times, gives a likeable performance and Rachel McAdams is hilariously shallow. Michael Sheen, as well, makes a perfect stand-in for every pompous, self-important jerk who has ever talked down to you. On the basis of his cameo appearance here as Dali, Adrien Brody really needs to consider doing more comedy. He’s a lot more appealing when he’s being funny than when he’s trying to be a leading man.
At the same time, I have to admit that I wanted to like Midnight in Paris more than I actually did. I like Owen Wilson as both an actor and a writer but he’s a little bit miscast here and the end result is that he occasionally seems like he’s trying too hard. You just never buy him and McAdams as a couple and, as such, there’s really not much at stake as far as his romance with Cotillard is concerned.
As well, I found it hard not to be a little bit disappointed with the way Allen presented 1920s Paris. Though they were all well-cast and acted, Hemingway, the Fitzgeralds, Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates), and all the rest just fell flat as actual characters. Gil gets a chance to go into the past and essentially, he discovers that Hemingway was macho, the Fitzgeralds were neurotic and self-destructive, and that Dali didn’t make much sense. Personally, I would be a bit let down if I got a chance to meet these icons and I discovered that essentially they just acted the exact same way that they acted in various PBS educational programs.
Despite this, Midnight in Paris is still a likable, frequently engaging comedy that works best as a tribute to a legendary and beautiful city that Allen (not to mention myself) obviously loves. Flaws and all, this movie made me want to visit Paris once again (though Florence and Venice remains my favorite cities of all time) and, for that reason alone, it makes Midnight in Paris a film worth seeing.