Midnight in Paris
Here’s a broad generalization for you: there are two types of movie directors. One type is in it for the filmmaking, for the experience of telling a story – any story – through the lens of a camera. The other type is there because he or she has a point of view, something they really want to convey, and movies just happen to be a good way to do that. The first kind make their movies well, they get nice shots and move the camera in interesting ways, but their movies can be really bad if the story isn’t any good. The other kind tend to write more of their own scripts and so have a baseline of quality they usually won’t sink beneath, but they run the risk of repeating themselves or running out of interesting things to say. In the first category we find guys like Steven Spielberg, Michael Bay, or J.J. Abrams; in the second category we find Woody Allen, Kevin Smith, or David Lynch. But what happens when a director tries to switch types? Is it even possible? Will the result be any good? If MIDNIGHT IN PARIS is any indication, the answer is yes…sort of.
Gil Pender (Owen Wilson) is a man out of time; a screenwriter and novelist, he’s working on a novel about “historical nostalgia,” the yearning for an era one has never lived in, and a subject he knows well, as he has a bad case of it himself – he’s obsessed with Paris after World War I, the disillusioned but carefree era when expatriate American writers like Hemingway and Gertrude Stein rubbed shoulders with great musicians and artists like Josephine Baker and Salvador Dali. Gil has come to Paris on vacation with his wife Inez (Rachel McAdams) and her parents to research his novel and lose himself in the city he loves.
But “losing himself” and being “a man out of time” become bizarrely literal one night when Gil gets drunk, wanders the streets, and finds them full of vintage cars and Jazz Age flappers – and after encountering F. Scott Fitzgerald, Cole Porter, and even the great Gertrude Stein herself (Kathy Bates) realizes that he has somehow fallen through a crack in time and ended up in the era he loves – and not only that, but he can return to the present every morning and travel back to the 1920s when the clock strikes midnight. As the era of his dreams weaves its spell, as he dances the Charleston with legends and strikes up a romance with a beautiful fashion designer (French star Marion Cotillard, last seen as Cobb’s wife in INCEPTION), Gil grows increasingly distant and difficult (and hung-over) in the present day and his loved ones worry about his mental health, even as his wife finds herself drawn to a pompous intellectual rival of Gil’s (played with humorous gusto by TRON: LEGACY’s Michael Sheen). Can Gil choose to leave the past behind and return to his life in the here and now? I won’t give it away, but suffice to say that time travel is not the only surprise in store.
At 75 years old, Woody Allen has lived a lot of life, but with 46 movies under his belt, he’s also told us about a lot of it, and it’s no surprise that his more recent efforts have often reminded critics and fans of his earlier, often better work. So here he gives a movie about a man who is having trouble leaving the past behind and learning to try something new. That’s a hard choice for anybody to make, and nobody would really blame Woody if he wanted to just make a few more movies about neurotic Jewish guys in New York before he died. So the surprise here isn’t that MIDNIGHT IN PARIS isn’t always successful at leaving some of the Woody Allen tropes behind – the writer protagonist, the academic rival, the love of jazz – but that it succeeds as much as it does.
For instance, Gil is a conflicted guy, but as played by Owen Wilson in a fine performance, he is not just 75-year-old Woody Allen in a forty-year-old guy’s skin. He’s more cheerful, more extroverted, and while his wit is definitely Allenish, he has an innocent charm that Allen’s main characters haven’t had for decades. When finding out that a beautiful dance partner was the lesbian writer Djuna Barnes, Gil makes a gee-whiz expression and says “No wonder she kept trying to lead!” The movie is full of sweet, charming moments like that, and features fun cameos from the likes of Tom Hiddleston (Loki in this year’s THOR) and Adrien Brody playing famous faces like Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Something else new Allen has tried is making a movie that looks stellar; while Allen is better with a camera than, say, Kevin Smith, very few of his movies have ever impressed me with their use of color and lighting. That’s not the case with MIDNIGHT IN PARIS; the movie begins with a lush, beautiful series of shots of the city and consistently looks fantastic the entire way through. And for anyone who thinks his movies are talky snorefests, this might be the one to change people’s minds; it’s talky, but the characters have interesting and funny things to say and the editing is snappy and modern.
MIDNIGHT IN PARIS isn’t a perfect movie. The end isn’t entirely satisfying, some of the characters, like Sheen’s blustery academic, are funny but one-dimensional, and some of the historical figures feel wedged in, like a game of spot-the-cameo…and yet I didn’t really care. It was too sweet, too entertaining and pleasant. This is a real accomplishment, a director who has changed his spots, who at 75 years old has decided to try telling new stories in a new way. For the first time in a long time, I can honestly say that I can’t wait to see what Woody Allen tries next.