By Mike Richardson
Woody Allen is back in an all too familiar piece of Parisian whimsy, the latest film in what could be called Allen’s Post Americana Period. Allen stays behind the camera but leaves his fingerprint all over the film, heralded as the “best Woody Allen film in years.” It’s a fair description but it’s hardly the compliment that it once was.
Midnight in Paris tells the story of frustrated scriptwriter Gil, played by Owen Wilson (shamelessly phoning in an Allen-lite performance), who is holidaying in Paris with his gorgeous fiancé Inez (Rachel McAdams) and his future in-laws, while complaining about his life and the fact that he is “a Hollywood hack who never gave real literature a shot”.
His frustration at the scripts he writes is compounded by the fact that his wife to be and her right-wing parents want him to keep writing for the multiplexes, while he wants to write the 21st century Gravity’s Rainbow. If only he could live in Paris, then the pretentious…sorry literary, juices would flow unimpeded, poor Gil.
During the trip to Paris Gil has to contend with the horribly pretentious pseudo-intellectual Paul (a suitably slimy Michael Sheen), Inez’s former tutor who becomes their makeshift guide to the city and its culture. This Paris is very far from the Paris of his rosy-tinted imagination. If only Gil could spend time in the golden age of Paris, Paris of the 1920s. Allen had obviously caught his own The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985) when writing Midnight in Paris because Gil takes a wrong turn one night and finds himself in 1920s Paris, bumping into literary and art legends at every turn.
The film comes alive in the 1920s scenes with a real sense of fun and creativity fizzing all around but nothing really seems to happen. There’s a fair amount of academic fun to be had spotting literary references and each actor who is lucky enough to have a 1920s role relishes the chance (Adrien Brody as a rhinoceros-obsessed Dali, Corey Stoll’s gruff and charming Hemmingway and Marion Cotillard’s alluring muse Adriana, to name but three) but it’s never explained why Gil travels through time, and while that doesn’t matter, it matters that we’re given no reason to care.
The narrative turns in on itself and is just a mess when looked at objectively. There’s no conflict, there’s no suspense, there’s no real point to events. It’s also very difficult to muster any sympathy for a successful writer who moans about his own lack of literary worth, while sat in a luxury Parisian hotel, paid for by his Hollywood career.
Plenty has been written about the cameo from Madame la President Carla Bruni as a museum curator, a role which brings nothing to the film other than a little extra Gallic charm, something which isn’t really needed. Every shot of Paris is a handsome postcard, but that’s hardly a difficult task when you position your camera in one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Yet there’s no suddenly sumptuous fresh cinematography of a well know city, as there was in Manhattan (1979). That’s the biggest problem with Midnight in Paris, it’s the best Woody Allen film for an age, but it’s just OK.
Nothing in it is as smart as the subtitled flirtation in Annie Hall (1977), nothing as perceptive as Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), nothing as interesting as being schooled in seduction by Bogart from Play It Again Sam (1972) and nothing as funny as the “I have a gub” scene in Take the Money and Run (1969). That said, on recent form Midnight in Paris sparkles like the Eiffel tower on the hour compared to You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stanger (2010), Whatever Works (2009), Cassandra’s Dream (2007), Scoop (2006), Melinda & Melinda (2004) etc. The film can be summed up in the classic quote “nostalgia ain’t what it used to be”. Sadly, neither are the films of Woody Allen.
Midnight in Paris is a three star film; one for the beauty of Paris, one for fun of the 1920s and one for the memory of Allen’s earlier, cleverer, funnier films.