Some films are lavish eight-course meals. Others are pastries.
Midnight in Paris is of the second variety, but since it was made by Woody Allen (one of his best efforts of recent years, in fact) and unfolds in the most evocative city on Earth, it’s a most satisfying pastry. Every bite provides a lovely escape.
Our Woody stand-in this time around is Gil (Owen Wilson), a successful screenwriter and self-described “Hollywood hack” now struggling with his first novel.
Gil is vacationing in Paris with his fiance Inez (Rachel McAdams) and her parents, who are rich, Republican, and eye-rollingly intolerant of Gil’s artsy aspirations.
When he makes the mistake of admitting he’d love to live in a Paris garret, he gets comments like, “All that’s missing is the tuberculosis.”
In fact, Gil and Inez have opposite agendas. He could spend hours in Rodin’s garden; she’s content to go shopping with her mother for overpriced antique deck chairs.
It’s going to be a marriage of the ruthlessly pragmatic and the hopelessly romantic — if it happens at all. One of Inez’s old flames (Michael Sheen) has appeared with his girlfriend, and now this pompous pedant and wine expert (“I prefer a smoky feeling to a fruity feeling”) has assumed the role of pontificating tour guide. Inez hangs on his every word.
Small wonder Gil takes to wandering the boulevards and alleys after dark. He’s sitting on a cobblestoned corner at midnight when an antique touring car filled with noisy celebrants pulls up and he’s invited to take a ride.
When he arrives at a party where a couple introduce themselves as the Fitzgeralds — F. Scott and Zelda (Tom Hiddleston, Alison Pill) — Gil suspects he’s being punked or that he’s stumbled into an elaborate role-playing game.
But, no, he’s actually in 1920s Paris. From then on, every evening at midnight he can be found on that corner, awaiting the twelve peals from a clock tower and the arrival of that fancy old car.
Allen’s screenplay allows the amazed and delighted Gil to interact with the cream of bohemian society (he introduces Zelda Fitzgerald to the wonders of Valium and thereafter can do no wrong).
He rubs elbows with Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates), Ernest Hemingway (a wonderfully macho Corey Stoll) and Salvador Dali (Adrien Brody). He attends parties where Josephine Baker dances and Cole Porter tickles the ivories.
Midnight in Paris explores two themes. Most obviously this is a comedy of dislocation as a modern man navigates a celebrated past.
But it’s also a meditation on one of mankind’s most common complaints — the feeling that we’d be more at home in an earlier, less complicated time.
For Gil, ’20s Paris provides just the sort of escape he requires. But even the beautiful Adriana suffers from this malaise. She yearns to reside in the gay ’90s, and one night she and Gil find themselves transported from the Jazz Age back to the Belle Epoque to hobnob with Paul Gauguin, Edgar Degas and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.
Allen wisely refrains from giving too many details of the mechanics of Gil’s time traveling. Nor does he offer any explanation. But there is one lovely shot in which our boy leaves a cafe at dawn, walks a few feet down the sidewalk, and when he retraces his steps finds that the smoky bar is now an antiseptic modern self-service laundry.
The players appear to be having great fun as various historic personages, and Wilson makes for a solid Woody wannabe. He nicely navigates the trademark stuttering, nailing the Allen-ness without actually attempting an imitation.
Nothing terribly important is going on in Midnight in Paris. But that doesn’t keep it from being funny, wistful and altogether enchanting.
About the Author
Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.