Opening in May and reaching out into the early summer, Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris is an artful and shameless encouragement of going back to Paris. I suppose that’s better than artless and shameful, but, from a director who is aged 75 now, wouldn’t it be nice to feel some age and regret, to say nothing of this being the last time he’ll see Paris with the euro stronger than a two-day old croissant? The film makes pleasant, easy-going fun out of the idea of revisiting a starry past—the 1920s!—but, in truth, the movie’s Americans in Paris (at the Bristol) are so loaded, so smug, and so Woodyish that they’re locked in the emotional clichés of the 1920s already.
Gil (Owen Wilson) is a successful but soured Hollywood scriptwriter (again, a type from the past) who may want to write a novel—or want to want to write a novel. Desire in these states is so articulated and compromised it has to go around corners slowly. He is with Inez (Rachel McAdams), his spoiled, hard-edged, shopping-mad lover—except that she is his fiancée. I suppose there was a time when rich young Americans took a “fiancée” to Paris—with the fiancée’s stuffy and disapproving parents. All we can see is that Owen and Inez are not suited. They share a room but not each other. After all, she refuses to remark on the kink in his nose—that tact wouldn’t happen in Inez when it confounds the cameraman at every close-up.
When they get married, Inez wants to live in Malibu on Gil’s junky scripts. No one seems to know that junky deals are now as elusive to pin down as “good” ones. But Gil hankers for the old Paris where Americans took their artistic dreams, so, lost and alone in those windy back streets, at midnight, he is picked up by an antique automobile that contains F. Scott Fitzgerald and Zelda. It is his portal to the past.
This is known as a conceit, and it carries Gil back into what he regards as the “golden age”—he meets Cole Porter, Gertrude Stein, Hemingway, Picasso, Matisse, Man Ray, Luis Bunuel, Salvador Dali, and so on, plus he picks up the winsome, lose-some Marion Cotillard (who herself longs to get farther back to the Belle Epoque). This might be a spoiler—if you were simpletons enough to miss what’s coming—but Gil will learn to see through Inez and stay in Paris.
Midnight in Paris is very far from the worst film Woody Allen has made in the last 300. He has a conventional prettifying tourist’s eye for the great city. He pursues his old wintry habit of collecting attractive girls and then abandoning them—cast cute but then never give them real scenes, let alone emotions. He has a promising misunderstanding over a pair of earrings, but then tidies it away as if it’s going to require too much work. And the 75-year-old continues to survey his own pictures like a 22-year-old who is superior, lazy, and chronically immature. So the game is played, but no one cares—least of all Allen. The films might as well come with numbers and grades. In which case, this is a solid B for charm, when charm needs to be airy, risky, and torn between an A and an incomplete. It’s just that there is no evident reason why it was made, beyond not making another film, or taking a season off to ask himself, “Why do I need to make another film?”
So Woody Allen attracts promising players and does nothing with them—as an example, he has Michael Sheen and Nina Arianda in this picture (because he’d heard they were good?) but they have nothing to do, except deliver instant plot points. Sheen plays a one-note show-off who is there to romance Inez while Gil goes back to the past—but we never see the romance, which could have been funny enough to turn Inez into a shrew.
The film has a point—about the way golden ages are in the eye of the gold-digger—that is interesting until it’s hammered flat as gold leaf. Above all, Allen delivers not one pang that says, look, I’m an old-timer and time is running out. It’s not just Paris that has deserted me, but love. In all the years, the guarded cleverness and whiny promise of Woody Allen have been afraid of doing feeling. It was there in Manhattan, and I’m not sure where else. He has the artistic fatigue of a lounge piano-player tired of “Feelings.”
But audiences seem to be enjoying Midnight in Paris: I saw it in a sold-out afternoon house, with applause and customers ready to make an Air France booking. It was like being at an Allen picture from the 1970s. The cameos from Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, and Dali (a delicious Adrien Brody) do pass the time. But I have to advise that, if you like this kind of dish, it was done infinitely better in 1988 by Alan Rudolph in a picture called The Moderns. That had a real love story with loss and passion regained. It was a very witty view of fraud in the art world. Its Hemingway (Kevin O’Connor) was far better than Woody’s; the music was sublime and structural—while, with Allen, it is perky and nostalgic but hanging there like stale wall paper.
Allen is right when he says no one would notice if you made a Lubitsch film today in which love’s bliss and broken hearts are caught in a dance. But why doesn’t he try? And, if he doesn’t have the energy to try, why bother to do it? Rudolph (who has vanished) made a Paris film (in Montreal, I think) that really explored the crazy myth of the place and the mythical frenzy of its artists. The Moderns is close to a great film. Midnight in Paris is an extended trailer—but it is better than Woody has done for a while. It’s that dismal.
David Thomson is the author of The New Biographical Dictionary of Film and The Moment of Psycho: How Alfred Hitchcock Taught America to Love Murder.
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