Pauline Kael wrote of Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo, “I watched this movie almost purring with pleasure.” That’s how I feel about Midnight in Paris, the director’s latest film, which owes a great deal to Purple (which I thought was the best film of 1985), as well as his short humor pieces such as “A Twenties Memory” and “The Kugelmass Episode.”
Allen has always displayed an affection for fantasy, especially when it allows characters to interact with those of literature or history. The Purple Rose of Cairo had a movie character come off the screen and into the real world of the 1930s, while “The Kugelmass Episode” saw a middle-aged literature professor, through the aid of a magician’s cabinet, insert himself into the novel Madame Bovary, where he wooed the title character. Now Allen’s fascination with Paris in the ’20s (the subject of “A Twenties Memory, in which Allen is constantly being punched in the mouth by Ernest Hemingway) is brought to the screen.
The “Woody Allen” character in Midnight in Paris is played by Owen Wilson, who is a screenwriter on holiday in the French capital with his fiancee, Rachel MacAdams. Wilson is trying to write a novel, considering himself a hack screenwriter. MacAdams parents’ are visiting, and she wants to do touristy things and shop, while Wilson is enraptured by the romance of the city. To get us going, Allen, along with cinematographer Darius Khondji, starts the film with a lovely morning-to-night montage of beautiful scenes of the city, as he did with New York in the opening of Manhattan.
Wilson loves the city so much that it grates on MacAdams, who says she could never live outside the U.S. We quickly realize these two aren’t an ideal match, and if there’s a flaw in the film it’s that it’s hard to imagine how these two ever got together. Allen tries to have each character say something nice about the other, but MacAdams comes off as a villain.
Wilson, to get away from MacAdams and her overly-pedantic teacher friend (Michael Sheen, in a dead-on performance) wanders the streets. As the chimes ring midnight, a vintage Peugeot pulls up in front of him, and he is urged to get in. Without any explanation, he is transported back to the Paris of the 1920s, and he slowly realizes it when he recognizes Cole Porter and Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. One of the charms of this film is how readily Wilson accepts what’s going on, and adapts to his situation. Later, he will tell Man Ray what’s going–that he inhabits two worlds, and Man Ray will tell him that it sounds perfectly normal. “But you’re a surrealist,” Wilson protests.
Wilson returns to the present after a while, but he learns how to return night after night. He meets Ernest Hemingway, who takes him to Gertrude Stein’s salon. She agrees to read his book, and while there he meets Pablo Picasso and his mistress (Marion Cotillard, in the only fictional character of the long-ago Paris sequences. Picasso had many mistresses, but a woman named Adriana was not one of them). Wilson and Cotillard are attracted to one another, but she tells him she would like to live in the Paris of the 1890s, La Belle Epoque.
Like a Swiss watch the the theme emerges–that nostalgia, which Sheen boorishly says is a form of denial of the present, is not all its cracked up to be. Everyone has a time they think is a golden age, only the people living in that age don’t think it’s so great. It’s a time-oriented version of “the grass is always greener.” Cotillard tells Wilson she thinks her time is boring, and he can’t believe it.
This film is manna for humanities majors. The packed house I saw it with gave out gasps of recognition laughter every time they figured out who a person was, such as Adrien Brody’s cameo as Salvador Dali. In a way, it’s a form of self-congratulation, that the audience “gets” what Allen is joking about and can feel smart about it. There are many inside jokes, my favorites being a reference about Djuna Barnes leading while dancing (she was a well-known Lesbian) and Wilson pitching a plot to Luis Bunuel about a dinner party not being able to leave the room (Bunuel would make that movie in the 1970s–The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie).
But if there’s a lot of name-dropping in Midnight in Paris it’s perfectly acceptable, as the film is too whimsical to take seriously but instead a continuous delight. I would have never thought Wilson would be right for an Allen film, but he is perfect, not doing an Allen impersonation (like Kenneth Branagh did in Celebrity) but keeping his own shaggy-dog persona while reading lines that one can imagine Allen saying.
As for the rest of the cast, there are many delights. Tom Hiddleston makes a fine Fitzgerald (from Loki to F. Scott Fitzgerald–what a spring for Mr. Hiddleston) and Corey Stoll has fun with Hemingway, speaking the terse, simple prose that Hemingway is known for. “Who wants to fight!” he exclaims at one point. Kathy Bates is a natural for Gertrude Stein, and Brody’s brief turn as Dali is as surreal as that artist’s works. His key word is “rhinoceros.”
After more than a decade of hit-and-mostly-miss for Allen, I think Midnight in Paris is his best film since Bullets Over Broadway, and it’s fine to have him back at the top of his game.
My grade for Midnight in Paris: A.