Jul 7 2011

Midnight in Paris

Utterly Charming. A True Delight. 4/4.

Since his cinematic move to Europe, Woody Allen has continued experimenting with a variety of styles and genres, ranging from mysteries to romance to morality tales, most of which were of a much darker tone than what one would expect from the famed filmmaker.  In Midnight in Paris, Allen breaks away from this trend and delivers one of his most charming, optimistic films of his career.

Midnight in Paris finds successful screenwriter and struggling novelist Gil (Owen Wilson) on holiday in Paris with his high maintenance fiancé Inez (Rachel McAdams), her stuffy parents (Kurt Fuller and Mimi Kennedy) and intellectual friends Paul and Carol (Michael Sheen and Nina Arianda).  Although Inez and her circle are virtually uninterested in anything-save for Paul’s pompous lectures on everything from wine to fine art- Gil is enamored with the Parisian lifestyle and yearns to relocate there to work on his novel.

One night while drunkenly walking around Paris, Gil hops into an old fashioned taxi that somehow takes him to the Roaring Twenties where he comes across F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, and countless other prominent artistic figures of that era.  Gil periodically visits this Golden Age to escape his own vapid time period to socialize with the artistic elite, get advice on his novel, and gains some insight on his own life and time.

Owen Wilson does a great job in film, and manages channel Woody Allen’s persona while retaining his own.  There are physical ticks and neurotic inflections in Gil that are classic Allen, and it is obvious that he would have played the part himself had the film been made thirty years ago.  At first glance, Wilson seems like an unlikely pick for this kind of character due to his laid-back attitude in his past films, but the actor has always had a nervous energy inside of him that really makes  him perfect for the film.  Along with this blithe neurosis, Wilson is just so likeable, and he gives the film most of its charm.

Of course, it is Gil’s (and Allen’s) ideal perception of the Roaring Twenties that is truly magical.  Allen paints this dimension like a Modernist Brigadoon, where everyone is charming and intelligent, where the Cole Porter songs and gin never stops, yet Allen keeps it from being too soapy and retains the era’s intelligence and class.

Gil’s paradise would be nothing for him- or us- if it were not for those who inhabited it; every character is exactly who you would want them to be.  Kathy Bates is wonderful as the direct, sensible Gertrude Stein that acts as a voice of reason, and Tom Hiddleston plays F. Scott Fitzgerald as smooth, yet sincere and very cool.  But it is Corey Stoll who plays Ernest “Poppa” Hemingway that steals the show as the godfather of all that is masculine.  Stoll nails Hemingway’s cadence and rhythm, and when he speaks of charging elephants and bullfighting and courage and grace under pressure, it feels as though the real Hemingway is speaking directly to you.

In the beginning voice over of Manhattan, Allen mentions a “decay of contemporary culture,” and in Midnight in Paris, Allen seems to have created his own little escape from that decay; the idealized, rose-tinted recreation of the past is enticing, not just to Gil, but the audience as well.  Living in an era where Stephanie Meyer is a bestselling author, Lady Gaga is heralded as a musical genius, and people seek intelligence solely to be pedantic and portentous, it is an delight to see truly artistic, insightful individuals who seek enlightenment and truth while engaging in charming, friendly conversations while simply enjoying life.

Many will criticize Allen for getting a little too carried away with his depictions of life and fantasy. In his real life, Gil surrounds himself with self-absorbed, awful people, and it sometimes becomes inconceivable that Gil would surround himself with them.  What is more unbelievable is that this crowd would ever invite him into their circle in the first place.

As for the film’s golden era, the Twenties were by no means a picnic; fraught with anxiety, hopelessness and a total loss of identity, the decade was called “The Lost Generation” for a reason.  However, that is precisely the point; we tend to forget the previous generations’ troubles and yearn for the pasts’ definitive wonders to escape our own uncertain present and future.

Hardcore Woody Allen fans may scoff at the director’s newfound sense of optimism, but after years of neurosis, stress, unhappy endings, and a never-ending fear of cultural entropy, maybe a stroll through the best of Paris is what he, and the rest of us, needs.   

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