Le Timey Wimey
Nobody sets a scene like Woody Allen. If you weren’t already in love with Paris — and, indeed, drawn to Midnight in Paris partly because of all the marvelous romantic notions such a title conjures up — you will be by the time the film finally introduces us to its protagonist. Before that happens, Allen opens with a simple, beautiful montage of Parisian street scenes: on sunny days and rainy nights, of museums and cafes, of the Eiffel Tower and chic boutiques. It plants you right in the middle of Paris: not just its physical sights but its spiritual mystique. Perhaps even someone who’d never so much as heard of Paris before would recognize a city of inscrutable delight, of literature and culture and cuisine and everything wonderful.
And then, in a masterstroke that makes Midnight in Paris a work of genius, and perhaps Allen’s (You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, Vicky Cristina Barcelona) best film yet, he turns that all upside down. Midnight becomes the butt of its own gentle joke… perhaps the most Woody Allen joke ever, one that wraps up a paralyzing self-awareness in a redemptive self-deprecation to, finally and splendidly, laugh with great good humor at itself.
Our sympathies from the get-go are so with Gil, Owen Wilson’s (Cars 2, Little Fockers) most perceptive, most engaging character yet, a self-confessed Hollywood “hack” of a screenwriter on a trip to Paris with his fiancée and getting a kick-in-the-pants reminder of everything he once aspired to and then gave up in favor of a quick buck. He’s just finishing up a novel, but Inez, his intended, doesn’t mind that he’s a hack: she’s looking forward to a new house in Malibu, and is already shopping for $20,000 deck chairs to furnish this so-far imaginary but will-be luxurious home. (Starving literary novelists, she knows, do not live in Malibu.) Inez isn’t a complete bitch, but almost — Rachel McAdams (The Vow, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows) is deliciously mean in the role — and shopping does take precedence over strolling around the cobblestones of Paris, and walks in the rain are right out. As an anti-bonus for soulful Gil, she’s interested in culture only if it comes out of the mouths of pompous, pseudointellectual blowhards like Paul, her former college professor they run into. (I don’t think I’ve even seen Michael Sheen [The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 1, Tron: Legacy] be funny before. He’s hits just the right notes of exasperating and droll as Paul.)
There is already magic in Midnight at this point, the magic of dramedy that falls somewhere in the poignant middle of a comedy for those who think and a tragedy for those who feel. And yet the magic hasn’t even begun yet. For one evening, while strolling the Parisian streets to escape from the exhausting confines of people he cannot truly comprehend, Gil is accosted by a happy party in an old-fashioned automobile. Come have a drink, they insist. They appear dressed for a 1920s party, and indeed, that is where they up end.
Actually in the 1920s, that is.
Yup: Gil has time-traveled to an era he has always romanticized and lamented that he missed. It is a perfect evocation of 1920s Paris, so perfect that it could well be a Disneyland walkthrough. The personalities he meets — Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald! Gertrude Stein! Salvador Dali! Ernest Hemingway! — are so very much the icons we’ve come to know them as that this might be in Gil’s imagination. Certainly, it’s everything he himself desires: a time when artists were appreciated and possibilities were endless. Such creativity! Such genius! Where did the world go wrong to let this slip away?
There’s simple, amusing movie magic, too, in Gil’s sojourn to the early 20th century, particularly in the gleeful performances of a cast that is having a ball: Kathy Bates (A Little Bit of Heaven, Valentine’s Day) as Stein, Adrien Brody (Predators, Fantastic Mr. Fox) as Dali, Tom Hiddleston (Thor), as Fitzgerald, and Marion Cotillard (Contagion, Inception) as Adriana, the artist’s muse who has artistic ambitions herself. The silliness of the time travel, the tweaking of our (and Gil’s) idealizing of the past, the caricatures that great figures in history have become… they all come in for an affectionate drubbing.
And then — no spoilers! — Midnight delivers a smack in the face to its own magic, and becomes a tale that is momentarily sad and suddenly comprehensively human about how everybody is nostalgic for the past… which means no one was ever truly happy where and when they were, and that no one ever sees enchantment or romance in the time they live in.
Midnight smacks Gil’s beliefs, and so our own, too, the very beliefs that the film had worked so well to reinforce… and, then, in retrospect, we see them for the absurdity they are. We see that Inez and Paul, who decried Gil’s nostalgia as denial, and hence became the comic villains, aren’t exactly wrong. The deepest magic of Midnight in Paris is that is a valentine — to people, to places, to ideals, to our own dreams — that does not wear rose-colored glasses, and one that reminds us that true love goes much deeper than being enchanted by surface illusions, and demands an acceptance of reality to be enduring. It asks us not to stop looking back, but not to let that keep us from looking forward.