Scene4 Magazine: "Midnight in Paris" reviewed by Miles David Moore July 2011

by Miles David Moore

Few American directors have been more skillful in delineating nostalgia than Woody Allen.  Allen has never exploited nostalgia for its own sake, but a film such as Radio Days shines a poignant light on the human condition while reminiscing warmly about the radio programs and performers Allen loved as a boy.  It's also no accident that his two great fantasies, Zelig and The Purple Rose of Cairo, share a Great Depression setting, though Allen's concerns with memory and history suffuse films as disparate as Stardust Memories and Love and Death.

Most recently Allen's films have been dour variations on the theme of making one's own morality in a meaningless universe, which is why Midnight in Paris, his new comedy-fantasy, is such a delightful surprise.  Though it just misses the lapidary perfection that made Zelig and The Purple Rose of Cairo such classics, Midnight in Paris is an airy treat for anyone who loves the history of Paris in the Twenties, as well as for anyone who misses the "early funny" Allen.

Allen sets the mood in the first five minutes with an enchanting, wordless mini-travelogue of Paris, set to the tune of a lovely, slow Dixieland blues played by Sidney Bechet.  The beginning of Midnight in Paris is comparable to the Rhapsody in Blue-enhanced opening montage of Manhattan, except that Allen doesn't talk, and neither does anyone else.  The opening of Manhattan, breathtaking as it was, was largely about Allen.  The opening of Midnight in Paris is about Paris, and Allen simply invites us to sit back and gaze in wonder that such a city actually exists.


This serves as the prelude for introducing Gil Pender (Owen Wilson), a Hollywood screenwriter.  Well-paid for his fluffy comedies but dissatisfied with his career, Gil believes he has a real novel in him, and Paris for him is a shrine to the great writers who came before him.  Unfortunately, Gil is in Paris with Inez (Rachel McAdams), his snippy fiancĂ©e, and her dreadful Tea Party parents (Kurt Fuller, Mimi Kennedy), for all of whom Paris is a shopping mall.  From the beginning it's hard to see the attraction Inez holds for Gil; for Inez, Gil is an ATM to fund her trips to Hermes and Chopard. Inez—a modern variation on Mrs. Walter Mitty—ostentatiously regards Gil as a mental lightweight, and has vastly more respect for her old boyfriend Paul (Michael Sheen, with a commendable American accent and an unbecoming beard), the sort of overbearing pseudointellectual Allen has been skewering at least since the Marshall McLuhan segment in Annie Hall.  Paul likes to goad Gil, calling him "Miniver Cheevy" for his frequent allusions to Paris' Golden Age in the 1920s.  (At one point Paul gets into an argument with a guide at the Musee Rodin about the identity of Rodin's wife and mistress; the guide is played by French First Lady Carla Bruni, who neither adds to nor detracts from the movie.)

One night after a particularly dreary dinner with Inez and her parents, Gil excuses himself and wanders the back streets near their hotel. A church bell chimes midnight, and suddenly an ancient Peugeot limousine pulls up to the curb; the passengers, dressed in Twenties-style party clothes, beckon Gil to join them.


Presently, Gil is introduced to his fellow passengers: Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald (Alison Pill, Tom Hiddleston). Soon Gil is being introduced to all the people he has revered all his life: Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates), Ernest Hemingway (Corey Stoll), Salvador Dali (Adrien Brody), Cole Porter (Yves Heck), and dozens of others.  Allen never attempts to explain how Gil travels 85 years back in time; he is simply there, in a Paris blazing with light and promise.  Especially blazing with light and promise are the eyes of Adriana (Marion Cotillard), fashion designer and artists' groupie, who has already been the mistress of Modigliani, Braque and Picasso and seems eager to make Gil next in line.


Midnight in Paris has affinities with two of Allen's best prose pieces.  "A Twenties Memory," one of Allen's earliest stories, is a pitch-perfect pastiche of the expatriate memoirs of the period, ending with the matchless line, "…and Gertrude Stein broke my nose."  Less obvious a match with Midnight in Paris, but just as pertinent, is "The Kugelmass Episode," in which a humanities professor at City College—aided by a friendly neighborhood magician—has a much-longed-for affair with Madame Bovary. 

Naturally, the affair ends in catastrophe, though literary scholars admit puzzlement as to how a middle-aged Jewish-American academic suddenly appears in the middle of a 19th-Century French novel. 

Midnight in Paris lacks the satiric bite of "A Twenties Memory" or "The Kugelmass Episode," and a few reviewers have taken Allen to task for this.  But I fail to see what is so wrong about Allen making a film that is charming and mellow, especially since charm and mellowness haven't exactly been abundant in his recent work.  Allen is now 75; why shouldn't he be allowed to make a movie about a city he loves and a period he reveres?  Besides, Midnight in Paris is the opposite of a mindless wallow in nostalgia.  If Paris in the Twenties is so perfect, why does Zelda Fitzgerald try to throw herself in the Seine?  And why does Adriana long for the Paris of the Belle Epoque, when Gauguin, Degas and Toulouse-Lautrec held court at the Moulin Rouge?

In any case, Gil Pender is a nicer guy than Kugelmass, and does not deserve as harsh a fate.  Owen Wilson brings an all-American, puppy-dog eagerness to the role of Gil, as well as a bright-eyed intelligence that makes him believable as an aspiring novelist.  (Wilson manages to speak all the Woody Allen lines without turning into Woody Allen—a feat that Kenneth Branagh and Will Ferrell, just to name two, did not accomplish.) Allen gives Wilson some nice business along the way, such as when Gil volunteers to a befuddled young Luis Bunuel the idea for one of Bunuel's greatest films, The Exterminating Angel. 

Wilson has virtually the only large role in the film, and most of the listed cast has only a few minutes on screen, but all the performances (with Carla Bruni a question mark) are sharp and memorable.  As Gertrude Stein, Kathy Bates is the perfect mentor—perceptive, honest, hard-headed but soft-hearted.  As Dali, Adrien Brody has a wonderful couple of minutes expostulating on the cosmic significance of the rhinoceros.  As Hemingway, Corey Stoll is a sententious, self-mythologizing marvel, gazing in Gil's eyes meaningfully as he intones the all-important words, "Do you box?" 

As Inez, Rachel McAdams has the thankless task of playing a self-centered scold, but Allen gives her some juicy lines to compensate. "How dare you take the help's side against me!" she rages at Gil at one point.  "As always!  No wonder Daddy says you're a Communist!"

Midnight in Paris is Allen's most optimistic film in a long time, and its moral is pertinent: It's up to us to create our own Golden Age, here and now.  If our boats bear us back ceaselessly into the past, the past nevertheless can be a beacon.  Just be sure to steer away from the rocks in time.

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©2011 Miles David Moore
©2011 Publication Scene4 Magazine


Scene4 Magazine — Miles David Moore
Miles David Moore is a Washington, D.C. reporter for Crain Communications Inc., the author of three books of poetry and
the Film Critic for Scene4.
For more of his commentary and articles, check the Archives
Read his Blog


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