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Rapid Review: Midnight in Paris

June 16, 2011

Woody Allen films, for me, are either poignant or pretentious.  There’s rarely an in-between.  Those films that fall into the poignant category include the witty Annie Hall, the nostalgic Radio Days,  the sharp Match Point, the scathing Husbands and Wives, and my personal favorite: the charming The Purple Rose of Cairo

Cecilia, the main character in The Purple Rose of Cairo, has an obsessive but sweet love of the movies.  One day, her favorite character in the movie she’s seen way too many times (the movie that gives the film its title) walks off the screen and into her life.  This leaves the movie’s action suspended on the screen as its character, Tom Baxter, romances Cecilia’s Depression-era housewife.  In the end, Cecilia must choose between the sweet, but one-dimensional Tom or the charming but flawed actor who plays him.  She chooses reality, but is abandoned by it and the actor who represents it, missing her chance to forever escape into the screen world with Tom.  The movie’s ending is bittersweet, but appropriate.   Like Cecilia, we are only allowed to “escape” reality for the two hours our favorite movie plays on the screen.

Gil waits for midnight

Midnight in Paris, Allen’s latest film, has a similar conceit involving reality and one’s perception of happiness.   Gil (Owen Wilson) is a down on his luck (is there any other kind in a Woody Allen film?) screenwriter who is escaping to Paris and about to begin revising his first novel.    His fiancée, Inez (Rachel McAdams), brings him to Paris to tag along while her father brokers a business deal.  There’s something a bit off about Gil and Inez’s relationship.  Perhaps there are too many expectations regarding who each person wants the other to be.  There are disagreements that seem minor, but anyone who has been in a long-standing partnership knows when to arch an eyebrow.  This is not a great starting off point for Happily Ever After. 

Gil, like most writers, is defined as a person by his love of the written word.  He believes he has what it takes to be a great novelist, but just can’t seem to find his inspiration back home in Hollywood.  Early on in the film, Inez’s pretentious and smarmy old friend (played to perfection by Michael Sheen) tells Gil that he suffers from “Golden Age Thinking”.  This syndrome affects those who constantly believe that another time and place is the “Golden Age” of lore – a time of great artistic and emotional purity and happiness.   I believe I self-diagnosed myself with “Golden Age Thinking” on Web MD the other day.  For me, I would love to live in London during the age of the Romantic poets, perhaps having a glorious dinner with Byron, Shelley and Keats.  Gil’s  “Golden Age”, however, is 1920s Paris, where you could find Hemingway sharing cocktails with Fitzgerald, or you might bump elbows with Picasso and Josephine Baker. 

Gil's journey begins

It’s hard to discuss what happens next without major spoilers, but you can probably catch on to what is going to happen to Gil.  Where else but Paris would be the perfect place to rendezvous and get in touch with the vibes and energy of some of the greatest writers and personalities of modern history?  Let’s just say the title contains a vital clue.

Gil becomes a man torn, which is true of any great Woody Allen protagonist.  Allen doesn’t try to explain how Gil’s extraordinary night life could happen in reality.  It is entirely unimportant.  All that matters is how Gil feels about it, and how Gil is transformed as a person.      There’s the obligatory “other woman” love interest, and when she’s played by Marion Cotillard, she’s hard to resist.  All of the supporting performances in the film,  given by such luminaries as Kathy Bates and Adrien Brody, are wonderful visions.  They are not realistic impressions of the personages that they were in history, but of the way Gil wants to see them and interact with them.  These  new friends become guides of a sort, leading Gil towards finding a resolution in his everyday life, as well as on the page.

friendly advice

Of course, there are real-world dilemmas involved for Gil in leading a kind of “double life”, but as in all great Allen films, nothing is simple (although maybe it should be).   Thanks to a literate, intelligent, and endearing screenplay, in addition to great performances by all involved (especially Owen Wilson, Kathy Bates, and Alison Pill’s daffy but bright performance as a famous author’s wife whom we will simply call “ZF”), Midnight in Paris easily ranks among Allen’s top ten films in a career that runs the gamut from bland to brilliant.

Midnight in Paris  is a worthy successor to Cairo and Radio Days, being one of Allen’s most sentimentally charming films.  It is a rarity to go to a movie these days and walk away feeling lifted up, entertained, and wistful at the same time.  It takes a certain type of magic and mojo from a talented filmmaker to make a movie resonate like that with an audience – a magic lots of critics thought Allen had lost.   As the woman sitting next to us commented on the way out, “That was so good, wasn’t it?”.  It was, in fact.  It truly was.

Overall Grade: A

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