You must remember this
Midnight in Paris
In the good old days, we criticized new Woody Allen movies for not living up to the early funny ones. Then we criticized them for not living up to the late serious ones. Now it’s less a matter of living up than keeping up. He keeps cranking them out and we keep calling them his best or worst in years, and before we’re even done bickering over how many years and what are the best-worst benchmarks, he’s in preproduction on the next one. In any case, Allen’s an old man now, and his golden age is unanimously understood to be behind him.
So it’s easy to accept this 75-year-old writer-director as a good-humored nostalgist, as he understands the basic problem with nostalgia: There’s no future in it. Arguably, that knowledge has embittered Allen before, but in Midnight in Paris, a deceptively light comedy, his tone is most agreeable. He’s found a balance between ruefulness and a romping good time.
Gil Pender (Owen Wilson) is a successful Hollywood screenwriter who calls himself a hack and thinks he’d rather be a novelist. His book-in-progress is about the owner of a nostalgia shop. Gil can afford a luxe Paris vacation with his spoiled fiancée Inez (Rachel McAdams) and the drolly dreary pair of rich right-winger parents (Mimi Kennedy and Kurt Fuller) who spoiled her, but that doesn’t mean he can manage it. To Gil’s family’s dismay, Paris puts a spell on him. He keeps trying to get Inez to go for romantic city walks in the rain, but she’d rather be shopping and controlling. He confesses that he’s tempted not to go home, that he’d rather stay here and be a proper expat writer like they did back in the day, and like he’d hoped to once before.
“Do you really want to give it all up just to struggle?” Inez responds, briefly nearing actual sympathy. Then her highly pompous old professor friend (Michael Sheen) shows up and makes Gil feel even more out of his element.
Wilson, a strangely surfer-dude nebbish, makes an intriguing addition to the ongoing parade of Allen alter egos. If each new lead player tests the universality of the Allen type (and this one implies an endangered species), that just works to the movie’s advantage. Wilson’s dreamy melancholy is well-deployed here, with sincerity and softer edges than the on-screen Allen ever had.
And so our hero, whose novel-in-progress is about the owner of a nostalgia shop, finds himself alone on glinting Parisian cobblestones at a moment past midnight. When a 1920s-era Peugeot pulls up and its dapper passengers offer him a ride, he’s ready to accept. When they turn out to be Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald (Tom Hiddleston, Alison Pill), he’s all in. Of course we can see where this is going. It’s been done, by Allen himself a few times already, and by others before him—before movies, for that matter, and maybe that’s the point. Novelty, after all, is just another face of the nostalgia trap. Modern really is the new old-fashioned.
Gil’s glimpse of Paris in the ’20s, to paraphrase Allen’s introduction to his own Manhattan, romanticizes it all out of proportion—which, of course, is the wistful beauty of it (that, plus the tandem glamorizing of Anne Seibel’s production design and Darius Khondji’s cinematography). Memorable new friends include Corey Stoll as Ernest Hemingway, Adrien Brody as Salvador Dalí and Kathy Bates as Gertrude Stein, each with deep delights and useful advice to impart.
And then there is Marion Cotillard as Adriana, a resident muse who takes special interest in Gil, and even shares his interests. If he doesn’t seem to mind that before him she was with Modigliani and Picasso and Hemingway too, it’s probably because he’s flattered by the evident refinement of her taste. She says he seems lost and he takes it as a compliment, like you do when the apparent official mistress to the Lost Generation looks at you with eyes like those.
It’s true that Allen’s intellectual lyricism has given way to proceduralism of late, but it takes grace to give a nod to surrealism and science fiction without bogging down in genre clutter or losing your own voice. Yes, Midnight in Paris amounts merely to a vivid and poignant postcard souvenir.
But ah, postcards. Remember those?