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As beguiling as a stroll around Paris on a warm spring evening — something that Owen Wilson’s character here becomes very fond of himself — Midnight in Paris represents Woody Allen’s companion piece to his The Purple Rose of Cairo, a fanciful time machine that allows him to indulge playfully in the artistic Paris of his, and many other people’s, dreams. A sure-fire source of gentle amusement to Allen’s core audience but unlikely to connect with those with no knowledge of or feel for the Paris of the Fitzgeralds, Hemingway, Gertrude Stein and Picasso, this love letter to the City of Light looks to do better-than-average business for the writer-director in the U.S. upon its May 20 release, and expectations in certain foreign territories could be even higher.
As has happened before when Allen has filmed in photogenic foreign locales — London in Match Point, Barcelona in Vicki Cristina Barcelona — the director seems stimulated by discovering the possibilities of a new environment. In fact, Allen has worked in Paris before, as a writer and actor in What’s New Pussycat? 46 years ago and in one section of Everyone Says I Love You, but this is the first time he’s given the city the royal treatment.
Granted, it’s mostly a touristic view of the city, as witness the voluptuously photographed opening montage of famous sites, but that’s entirely acceptable given that the leading characters are well-off Americans on vacation. Playing Allen’s alter ego this time around is Owen Wilson as Gil, a highly successful hack Hollywood screenwriter still young enough to feel pangs over not having seriously tested himself as a novelist.
That things may not be entirely right between Gil and his pushy fiancée Inez (Rachel McAdams) becomes clear early on, as the couple tours around with Inez’s friends Carol (Nina Arianda) and Paul (Michael Sheen), the latter an insufferable expert on all things cultural (that Inez’s parents are right-wingers also allows Allen to sneak in some Tea Party jokes). “Nostalgia is denial,” Paul intones to Gil, who is keen to break off on his own to indulge his own reveries of the literary Paris that fuels his creative imagination.
Lo and behold, that night, while wandering through a quiet part of the city, Gil is invited into an elegant old car carrying some inebriated revelers. Arriving at an even more elegant party, Gil shortly finds that he’s in the company of F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald and that it’s Cole Porter playing the piano. Later, they end up at a bar with Ernest Hemingway, who promises to show Gil’s unfinished novel to Gertrude Stein.
And so begins a flight of fancy that allows Gil to circulate with, and receive a measure of approval from, his lifelong literary heroes, not to mention such other giants as Dali (a vastly amusing Adrien Brody), Picasso, Man Ray, T.S. Eliot and Luis Bunuel, to whom the young American gives the premise of The Exterminating Angel. If not more important, he also meets the beauteous Adriana (Marion Cotillard), the former lover of Braque and Modigliani who’s now involved with Picasso, will shortly go off with Hemingway but is also curiously receptive to Gil, who seems somehow different than everyone else.
After trying but failing to bring the balky Inez along through the midnight portal along with him, Gil keeps returning to the 1920s night after night, getting pertinent advice from Stein about his novel and becoming seriously distracted by Adriana, who herself would prefer to have lived during La Belle Epoque. Although it’s all done glibly in traditional Allen one-liner style, the format nonetheless allows the writer, who has never been shy about honoring his idols in his work, to reflect on the way people have always idealized earlier periods and cultural moments, as if they were automatically superior to whatever exists at the time. “Surely you don’t think the ‘20s is a Golden Age?” Adriana asks a bewildered Gil, who has always been so certain of it. “It’s the present. It’s dull,” she insists.
For anyone whose historical and cultural fantasies run anywhere near those that Allen toys with here, Midnight in Paris will be a pretty constant delight. As Allen surrogates go, Wilson is a pretty good one, being so different from the author physically and vocally that there’s little possibility of the annoying traces of imitation that have sometimes afflicted other actors in such roles. Cotillard is the perfect object of Gil’s romantic and creative dreams; Kathy Bates, speaking English, French and Spanish, makes Stein into a wonderfully appealing straight-shooter, Sheen has fun with his fatuous walking encyclopedia role and McAdams is a bundle of argumentative energy in a role one is meant to find a bit off-putting. French first lady Carla Bruni is perfectly acceptable in her three scenes as a tour guide at the Rodin Museum, while Corey Stoll very nicely pulls off the trick of both sending up Hemingway’s manly pretentions and honestly conveying his core artistic values.
Darius Khondji’s cinematography evokes to the hilt the gorgeously inviting Paris of so many people’s imaginations (while conveniently ignoring the rest), and the film has the concision and snappy pace of Allen’s best work.
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Opening night, Out of Competition)
Opens: May 20 (Sony Pictures Classics)
Production: Mediapro, Versatil Cinema, Gravier Prods., Pontchartrain Prods.)
Cast: Owen Wilson, Rachel McAdams, Marion Cotillard, Michael Sheen, Kathy Bates, Adrien Brody, Carla Bruni, Nina Arianda, Kurt Fuller, Tom Hiddleston, Alison Pill, Lea Seydoux, Corey Stoll
Director-screenwriter: Woody Allen
Producers: Letty Aronson, Stephen Tenenbaum, Jaume Roures
Executive producers: Javier Mendez
Director of photography: Darius Khondji
Production designer: Anne Seibel
Costume designer: Sonia Grande
Editor: Alisa Lepselter
Rated PG-13, 94 minutes
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