REVIEW: Woody Allen Returns to Form For Real This Time With Midnight in Paris
My friend the critic Howard Hampton once lamented that too many young people have no sense of the past as a real place. Anything predating, say, the era of Star Wars seems old and strange and hardly worth bothering with, a waste of the Google finger in an age when the cultural refresh button needs to be hit every minute just to keep up with current stuff. Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris -- for my money, the best Allen movie in 10 years, or maybe even close to 20 -- is all about that idea: Reckoning with the past as a real place, but also worrying about the limits of nostalgia.
Allen, as an artist and as a person, has always liked old stuff: Old movies, old books, old jazz recordings -- you could even say that it's often been hard for him to live in the present. But instead of just reaffirming how great the old days were, Midnight in Paris -- in ways that are sometimes delightfully silly and other times strangely, deeply moving -- grapples with something more complicated and elusive. Living in the past is no good for anyone; it also happens to be pretty much impossible. But what happens if we don't care about the past enough to carry it with us into the future? That's the question Midnight in Paris worries over. It's a movie about every yesterday we stand to lose as we're busy making the leap, over and over again, between today and tomorrow.
I should point out that Midnight in Paris is funnier and less ponderous than I've just made it sound. Its hero, and the obvious Allen stand-in, is a Hollywood screenwriter named Gil, played by Owen Wilson. Gil is a self-proclaimed hack, but he really wants to be a novelist. He's visiting Paris with his shrill, vapid fiancee, Inez (Rachel McAdams, who's constrained in this deliberately unflattering role), and understandably, he's become entranced by the city: He wonders aloud if he shouldn't quit Hollywood forever and move into a Parisian garret complete with skylight (and, as one character adds, perhaps a touch of tuberculosis), the better to live his very obviously shaky, retrograde dream.
The people around Gil -- including Inez and her well-heeled parents (Kurt Fuller and Mimi Kennedy), crass Americans possessed of enormous class snobbery and reprehensible politics -- pay him no mind. He's a weirdo, a dreamer, someone who isn't sufficiently rooted in the here and now, not that their interests go particularly deep. The crude obviousness of that framing device is the worst aspect of Midnight in Paris -- you can imagine how the largely European audience here at Cannes tittered at Allen's cartoonish view of these ugly Americans, encased in their own handy petting zoo. Other, minor characters step in to amplify the stereotype: One pronounces "Sorbonne" so it sounds like "Sore bone." Close, but no Gauloise.
Midnight in Paris really blossoms when Gil, wandering around the city one night after downing one glass of red wine too many, is beckoned into a vintage Peugot by a crew of noisy revelers in evening dress, holding champagne glasses aloft. He's whisked off to a party, where he recognizes the gent at the piano: He's seen his picture on the front of an old piece of sheet music. A tootsie in bobbed hair and a shimmery flapper dress (Alison Pill) snaps him up and tells him her name is Zelda; she introduces him to her husband, an sensitive-looking well-groomed fellow named Francis (Tom Hiddleston, recently seen in Thor). A macho blowhard at a nearby table goes by the name of Ernest (he's played, with the right amount of tongue-in-cheek bluster, by Corey Stoll). Wilson can hardly believe what he's seeing, and who he's meeting. If you're looking for the actor to do the perfect "You're pulling my leg" double-take, Wilson is your man.
The hits just keep on coming: Salvador Dali meets Gil and reimagines him as a sad rhinoceros. (Dali is played, mischievously, by Adrien Brody -- his eyebrows look as if they've been removed and re-glued, framing his eyes like inquisitive accents aigu and grave.) Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates, wearing Stein's trademark butch haircut) agrees to read a draft of his novel.
But most entrancing of all is the mysterious muse played by Marion Cotillard, who has recently posed for her Spanish painter-beau. Gil chats her up: "How long have you been dating Picasso?" He waits a beat before marveling, "Did I just say that?" The adventure they embark on together, tentatively, is both tender and melancholy. Gil has fallen deeply in love with this fascinating, dark enchantress. "You're interesting too -- in a lost way," she tells him, getting it exactly right.
Allen has often made a practice of pouring himself into his lead characters, sometimes with embarrassing, unwatchable results (as in the case of the aspiring comedy writer played by Jason Biggs in Anything Else). Wilson is an unlikely vessel for this sort of thing -- and yet he's the perfect one, illuminating some aspects of Allen's persona that have often lain dormant and others that, perhaps, Allen only wishes he had. Maybe that wistfulness is the key to Midnight in Paris. Gil is anxious and dreamy; he would love to be able to float above his own neuroses, but he can't quite levitate. Wilson's face is both goofy and heartbreaking in its openness, and it speaks of something we don't often see in Allen's movies: Genuine yearning, and not just the desire to be someone else (an idea Allen explored cogently in Zelig), but to be somewhere else, decades away from the here and now.
Darius Khondji's cinematography captures that sense of wistfulness and its counterpart, the necessity of change: Midnight in Paris opens with a wordless montage of city sights, some exceedingly familiar, others beautiful in a hazier way. It's the Paris of now and then, coexisting in precarious harmony that can never be taken for granted. Gil would like the same for himself, and the fact that Allen allows him to find it is the most touching element of Midnight in Paris. Allen's love for the past has sometimes come off as sepia-toned affectation. With Midnight in Paris he burns off all that pretense. He's come home to roost in a place that looks an awfully lot like the present, except for the fact that F. Scott Fitzgerald isn't really dead, and somewhere, Cole Porter is always fiddling with a new tune on the piano.