Thursday, June 2, 2011

Spending MIDNIGHT IN PARIS - A Look at Woody Allen's Latest


- The modern Woody Allen film is always sort of an oddity in the current cinematic landscape. Stubbornly refusing to change or adapt to the times, Woody Allen in the last decade has continued to crank out a number of charmingly - sometimes annoyingly - anachronistic tales that capture his particular brand of nostalgic neurosis. Yes, Woody has ventured into serious drama on occasion, with movies like Match Point. And he's tried his hand at more romantic, less farcical stories - like Vicky Cristina Barcelona (one of his recent best, I think). But he's also continued, with mixed reviews, to put out those trademark Woody Allen romps - movies like Anything Else, Scoop, Whatever Works, and now, Midnight in Paris. To his credit, I think Midnight is Woody's best "classic-style" Woody movie in many a moon. Its fantastical time-travel premise suits Woody's unique brand of light-hearted comedy, and the dual Paris setting - Paris of the present day and Paris of the 1920's - continues the director's streak of gorgeous-looking films set in Europe that also function as veritable travelogues. To that end, Midnight in Paris may not wow you, but it's the sort of movie that's perfectly pleasant - that will keep you smiling, and that will make you want to pack your bags and travel to another place, and maybe, even, another time.

The story here concerns a Hollywood screenwriter, Gil, played by Owen Wilson, who ends up on an extended trip to Paris with his fiance and her parents. Being in Paris makes Gil's desire to quit working in Hollywood and take up novel-writing that much stronger, as he dreams of what it might have been like to be an ex-Pat in France in the 1920's - trading writing tips with the likes of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Gertrude Stein, talking art with Picasso and Dali, or sharing a drink with Ernest Hemingway. By some unexplained twist of fate, Gil gets his wish. While walking alone one night he is transported back to the 1920's, and finds himself hobnobbing with his literary and artistic heroes - even falling in love with an alluring woman who's been romantically entangled with Picasso. What follows is a funny, sometimes fascinating rumination on past versus present, a meditation on nostalgia brought to you as a romantic comedy and a comedy of errors.

Owen Wilson plays the traditional Woody Allen stand-in here, but he infuses a lot of his own wide-eyed personality into the role as well. Wilson does a great job, and even when his dialogue gets a bit too wordy or awkward, he somehow pulls it off. What's fun here though is that with Wilson in the lead, and Rachel McAdams playing his shrewish, unsupportive fiance, it's easy to get suckered into thinking you're watching a run-of-the-mill romantic comedy. But this being a Woody Allen movie, things don't really go according to typical Hollywood formula - because Woodly loves his twists. For example, McAdams does such a great job of making her character come off as snooty and unlikable that I was dreading the moment where, after arguing with Wilson, she has a change of heart and the two fall back in love. Luckily, Woody isn't afraid to go in a different direction altogether. And then, after that, throw in yet another curveball. It's a pleasure just to watch a movie that has elements of a romantic comedy, but that doesn't strain itself just to ensure that its main characters end up happily ever after by movie's end.

So yeah, Wilson is great, and McAdams is so effectively bitchy that it's going to be hard to look at her the same way. But aside from those two, Midnight in Paris is filled with fun characters played by supremely talented actors, who all seem to be having a blast. Michael Sheen is always great, and he is once again a scene-stealer here as McAdam's old friend whom she happens to run into while in Paris. Sheen is very funny as a snobbish know-it-all, and he and Owen Wilson play really well off of each other. It's also nice to see veteran actor Kurt Fuller get a nice little role here as McAdam's disapproving father - such a great actor (Noah of Noah's Arcade in Wayne's World, anyone?). Of course, once Wilson travels back in time ... that's where the real fun begins. We're treated to hammy, funny turns by Tom Hiddleston as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Alison Pill as his batty wife Zelda, Kathy Bates as Gertrude Stein, and Adrian Brody - hilarious - as Salvador Dali ... among others historical figures from the era who pop up (one other show-stealer: Corey Stoll, hilarious as the perpetually-ready-for-a-fight Ernest Hemingway). And then there's Marion Cotillard as Adriana - the stunning muse of Picasso whom Wilson's Gil quickly becomes enamored of. Cotillard makes Adriana into a striking character with some surprising depth - and credit to Woody - always with a knack for creating interesting female characters - for doing so once again with this out-of-the-past French mystery woman.

The movie is genuinely fun and funny, with a degree of fish-out-of-water humor but also a lot of amusing banter and character-derived humor. Like the more intense Vicky Cristina Barcelona though, Midnight In Paris is chock-full of amazingly-shot scenery and locations. I'm not Francophile, but it was nonetheless easy to just sit back and get lost in the lingering shots of winding backalley streets, squares, fountains, shops, and cafes. Once the movie veers into the past, the richness of the film increases even more, with tons of interesting period detail. Sometimes, the movie's glimpses of the past are a bit cartoonish, sure, but it all adds to the film's almsot fairy-tale like quality.

Where Midnight In Paris falters, I think, is that, like some other modern-day Woody films, it sometimes feels like its striving for authenticity yet feels like it takes place in some alternate Woody-verse version of reality. Whether it's dialogue that feels dated, or young characters whose pop-cultural awareness seems to have ended fifty years ago (which is noticable when the whole movie is obstensibly about pop-culture), sometimes there's just that feeling that things are, well, a bit off. McAdams and her snobby parents are almost too much at times - like Woody is trying to imagine what really annoying rich people are like in 2011 but not quite hitting the mark. Wilson's dismissal of Hollywood is a bit much as well - again, he's presented as a character who has to choose between Hollywood hackery on one hand and The Great Gatsby on the other - with no middle ground in between. I mean, do the Coen Bros. exist in this movie's universe? And, one other thing that is a long-running point of contention about Woody Allen movies -- the fact that, no matter how odd, how issue-laden, how neurotic his leading men are, they always seem to have their pick from a long line of smart, beautiful women eager to fall in love with them. Sure, nobody films beautiful women with quite the eye for the female form as Woody, but at the same time - as Owen Wilson seemingly glides from one impossibly good-looking lady-suitor to another - at some point you stop and think to yourself ... "really?".

Midnight in Paris is, ultimately, a fun movie that's vintage Woody Allen - mostly in a good way. The premise is fun and farcical, the comedy mostly works, and the cast is superb from top to bottom. And despite the couple of criticisms above, I think the film's magical-realist premise helps make even its harder-to-swallow elements go down pretty easy. There's definitely an old-timey, happy, nostalgic sort of magic that permeates the movie. It will leave you thinking of other places and other times. It's a trip, I think, that's well worth taking.

My Grade: B+

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