Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Midnight in Paris

Spoiler alert-o-meter: A few mild spoilers ahead.

Light as a soufflé, as insignificant as a chocolate truffle. Yet with a tasty cream in the middle. Woody Allen’s new Midnight in Paris goes down easy and leaves no residue. It’s low-carb movie making but without the guilt of explosions, full frontal nudity, and fart jokes.

Owen Wilson plays Gil, a Hollywood screenwriter who is on a trip to Paris with his self-absorbed fiancé, Inez (Rachel McAdams) and her self-absorbed parents. All Gil wants is to walk around Paris and take in the sights and sounds, and he doesn’t care if it’s raining. He has a romantic view of Paris, one based on the bygone cultural era of the 1920s. If he could he would give up Los Angeles for Paris and finish his novel. Inez for her part appears smitten by a cultural blowhard (played with pitch perfect condescension by Michael Sheen) as she follows him around the museums soaking in his views on art.

Watching the scenes of McAdams’ Inez, preening around as a bottle blond in designer jeans and heels complaining about everything and Wilson’s Gil feeling out of place, it’s impossible to understand what these two are doing together. We never see them have any fun, so unsuited do they seem as a couple. And the parents don’t try to hide their contempt for him.

Gil, more partial to walks around the wet streets of Paris at night than going dancing, is beckoned into a magic taxi whose passengers are none other than F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, along with other 1920s denizens.  They take him to a nightclub where they drink and schmooze. Gil, an obvious anachronism in his chinos and Oxford, mingles with the crowd with a bemused, accepting smile as he enjoys the music and the talk from his favorite time in history.

The movie continues along this tract: following Gil both as he travels to Paris of the 1920s and as he navigates contemporary Paris with his wife and in-laws. Luckily Allen realizes the real story here is not Gil and Inez but Gil’s feelings of being a misunderstood man out of time, and turns Midnight in Paris into a gentle time travel pastiche. Each night at midnight, Gil climbs into his time travel taxi coach and is whisked back in time, falling inexorably under the spell of the 1920s Paris he’s always longed for.

He meets Ernest Hemingway (Corey Stroll, spouting dialogue that sounds like Hemingway’s prose) and immediately implores him to read his novel in progress (wouldn’t you?). Hem declines but directs Gil to Gertrude Stein (a well-cast Kathy Bates), who agrees to help him out, right after she critiques Picasso’s latest piece.

Like a fairy tale character, Gil has to return to his hotel room and his shrill wife before dawn. Rachel McAdam’s has never looked sexier, so we are left to assume Gil’s attraction to her is mostly on a physical level. But McAdams is only given one note to play and any scenes with her become tedious. Owen Wilson brings a fine laid back, but wide-eyed openness to Gil. I’d almost call him an innocent, but whenever Allen lingers his close ups on Wilson’s face we see he’s no longer youthful, rubbery Dignan from Bottle Rocket. He’s aged and he’s lived (and attempted suicide), and this world weary experience works well for the movie.

Gil accepts all of this time travel as if it were his destiny. He mixes naturally with whomever he meets. Artists (Picasso, Man Ray, Salvador Dalí), filmmakers (Luis Buñuel), musicians (Noel Coward, Joséphine Baker), and of course the writers (along with Hem and F Scott we run into T.S. Eliot and Djuna Barnes). Gil meets Picasso’s mistress and muse, Adriana, played by Marion Cotillard. This lovely woman of the 1920s is perfect for him. Much of the fun and heart of Midnight in Paris stems from how Gil comes to realize that pining for some ultimately unattainable time and woman can never work out.

The movie is derailed briefly in the contemporary scenes due to a sit-com plot point device that was stale back on Three’s Company when Jack Tripper pretended to be gay to trick his landlord into letting him live with Chrissy. But that distraction doesn’t last long, and is more than redeemed by scenes such as when Gil meets the surrealists Luis Buñuel and Dalí (a playful Adrien Brody) Gil gives Buñuel one of his themes that will eventually be the basis of his classic The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie.

Midnight in Paris is the first Woody Allen movie I’ve seen in the theater since Manhattan Murder Mystery. While Paris doesn’t always work, it is refreshing to still walk into a Woody Allen movie, see those familiar white titles against the black background, hear some jazz on the soundtrack, and watch a new set of actors play out Allen’s fantasies.

Actors always talk about how, when he contacts them to be in his movies, they jump at the chance. Even though Allen hasn’t made a great movie since the mid-eighties. And some would argue earlier. He’ll never make Annie Hall Again or Manhattan II. He has no interest in it, and it wouldn’t be very good if he tried. What we do have is an iconoclast filmmaker who doesn’t know about trends, makes the exact movie he wants to make (at this point, only in Europe, with European financing), with whomever he wants.

Midnight in Paris is a hoot, a gentle bon bon of a movie that asks that you don’t take it too seriously and to enjoy its simple story. If you see one movie this year that makes a Djuna Barnes cultural reference, it should be Midnight  in Paris.


Theater location: Coolidge Corner Theater, Brookline, Monday, May 30th, 12:00 pm. Price: 8.00. Viewed with Liz. Snack: Mixed nuts, Diet Coke.

Coming Attractions:

Page One: Inside the New York Times. Documentary about the New York Times. Highlighting the changes over the past few years, to newspapers and to journalism in general.

Tree of Life. Whatever this movie ends up being about, it will look gorgeous. Brad Pitt plays a father in some scenes, and later, after, Sean Penn plays one of his grown up sons. There's shots of oceans and sun and rain and other elements.


Muriel said...

Great review, Dell. I don't know why, but I love Woody Allen movies, especially the ones he's in. I also think it would be fun to have lived in Paris in the 20's and known the Hemingways and the Fitzgeralds and the others. For me, this sounds like a must-see movie.

Dell Smith said...

Thanks Yes, I think this is one movie you'd like. Muriel. Woody's not in this one. Maybe he'll act in his next one.

Robin said...

I second Mom's thoughts about this film. Woody Allen has always been one of my favorites and I can't wait to see this. I also like the idea of traveling back in time to the 1920's to meet up with the likes of Hemingway and Fitzgerald. Thanks for a great review!

Liz's Mom said...

Indeed, this is a great review, charming, amusing, gentle, and honest.

Dell Smith said...

Woody Allen's the only filmmaker around making films for adults. I think you'd all enjoy it.

Cynthia Sherrick said...

Sounds intriguing. I may go to the movie house for this one. :)

Dell Smith said...

It just expanded to most theaters around here, so now's a good time to track it down.

JKW said...

I would love to see 1920s in Paris. . . what a fun sounding movie. Thanks for the review. Blessings, Janet

Dell Smith said...

Thanks for reading, Janet.

Anonymous said...

great review but the bunel film was " The Exterminating Angel" not discreet charm. sorry for being a stickler for detail.

Dell Smith said...

Thanks for keeping me honest.