For devoted Woody Allen fans like myself, who will watch anything the insanely prolific writer/director puts his name on, watching him make virtually the same neurotic film over and over again is bearable. For such fans, it’s a joy to watch Allen (or some other poor schmuck of a surrogate when he’s too old to play himself) bumble through life clinging on to his defeatist worldview. For others, though, the filmmaker’s consistent nervous babbling has lost its charm and have thus tuned out Allen’s faithful annual output.
However, Allen has done something miraculous with his latest film, “Midnight in Paris.” He has made a movie that satisfies both camps with wit, charm, and creativity. It still has that burst of zany energy that the Allen faithful adore but tones down the nihilism so that the disenchanted or neophyte Allen fans can focus on the film’s ideas and not on their querulous complaints. In other words, it’s a movie made to be seen outside the director’s normal niche audience but can still win that crowd over with its warmth and ingenuity.
Not to mention that many fans and foes alike have also been looking forward to Allen making a movie like “Midnight in Paris” for many years. At 75, Allen is entering his sixth decade of filmmaking and has shown little indication of budging from the tenants of his philosophy, rarely subjecting them to challenges, criticism, or reproach. But as he enters what are sure to be the twilight years of his film career, Allen hints in his latest film at a level of maturity we rarely see from the director. He puts his views under a microscope in “Midnight in Paris” and analyzes their practicality in the modern world, ultimately producing some very interesting and unexpected conclusions.
Owen Wilson is tasked with playing the Woody Allen character in the film, a writer named Gil Pender who bears more similarities to Allen than his usual protagonists. He’s a Hollywood screenwriter who has grown tired of churning out mediocre script after mediocre script and dreads having to take a crummy rewrite job for some extra cash. His fiance Inez (the lovely Rachel McAdams) doesn’t see why he can’t suck up his pride and use his talents to sustain their prosperity, but Gil still can’t put aside his desire to leave cinema and become a novelist. He hopes to find inspiration on a trip with Inez and her suspicious aristocratic parents to Paris, the city that inspired his literary heroes.
Rather than have Gil have a psychotic breakdown in the City of Light, Allen does something a little bit more unexpected and worlds more creative. He transports Gil back into the Golden Age of art and culture in 1920s Paris when the clock strikes midnight by way of an enchanted antique car, placing him at speakeasies and festive parties with members of the Lost Generation and the expatriate community. He meets Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Dalí, Picasso, Porter, and Stein, awakening the Romantic spirit in Gil that wishes to return to what seems like a second Renaissance of ideas and art.
But he’s taken most of all by Adriana (Marion Cotillard), a woman of subtle but breathtaking beauty who has made the rounds among various artists. She, not so unlike Gil, has needs and desires that she feels can’t be fulfilled by the society surrounding her. Adriana’s tussling with society serves as a catalyst for Gil’s thinking, challenging him to question how he views the place of the past and the present in his life.
Allen tells this story not with the cautious optimism that often shields his pessimism from becoming too downbeat, but with hope, sincerity, and conviction. It’s a movie that the American film community has waited for him to make for decades. He dares to ask if maybe his nostalgia and cynicism are misplaced, and that fresh take on life combined with an inventive plot makes “Midnight in Paris” one of the best movies he’s made in a very long time. A- /