I think I may have been the last person on Earth to see Midnight in Paris, which is odd, because Woody Allen is one of my all time favorite directors. By the time I finally made my way to the cheap seats (shout out to the Budget South Cinema, my go-to location for $2 movies and $1 Tuesdays), every single person in my life had told me that this was the greatest movie they’d seen in years. Needless to say, my expectations were incredibly high, which is not the ideal way to enter into a moviegoing experience. I wasn’t expecting another Annie Hall (objectively the best comedic film ever made), but I was definitely hoping for something amazing. I thoroughly enjoyed Midnight in Paris, and thought that the film succeeded on many levels, but I must admit that it did not quite live up to the incredible hype.
Midnight in Paris tells the story of Gil Pender (Owen Wilson), a talented yet disenchanted Hollywood screenwriter (yes, that’s the Woody Allen stand-in character) on vacation in Paris with his shrewish fiancée Inez (Rachel McAdams) and her parents (Kurt Fuller and Mimi Kennedy). Gil is preoccupied with the past; he is struggling to complete his first novel, set in an antique shop, and longs for a romanticized version of the world as it was in the 1920s. Gil loves Paris and would like to move there, while Inez prefers the modernity of Malibu. One night, on a solo and drunken walk, Gil finds himself in an unfamiliar part of the city. As the clock strikes midnight, a 1920s-era car pulls up and offers to give Gil a ride. They transport Gil back to the 1920s, where he meets Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald. He continues to return in secret every night, meeting Cole Porter, Ernest Hemingway, Salvador Dalí, Gurdrude Stein, and many others. Gil falls in love with Adriana, the mistress of Pablo Picasso. (spoiler alert) Adriana is also obsessed with the past, and takes Gil on a trip to the 1890s. They have a long and heady conversation about which era is better, and reflect on whether it is worthwhile to obsess over other time periods rather than to be happy with your lot. Ultimately, Adriana stays in the 1890s, and Gil returns to the present, where he learns that Inez has been unfaithful, breaks up with her, and starts a romance with a woman who owns an antique shop and shares Gil’s infatuation with the past.
The film immediately reminded me of two previous Woody Allen movies. The first was Manhattan, as both stunningly portrayed a city beloved by the auteur. Allen has in recent years grown to love and appreciate Europe (see Match Point and Vicky Cristina Barcelona), and this love shines through in Midnight in Paris. The film opens with stunning shots of Paris, executed with the same precision and care as we saw in Manhattan in those iconic scenes set to Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.” The second film brought to mind was Play it Again, Sam, in which Allen’s character similarly copes with the struggles of an unsatisfying romance by escaping to an imagined relationship with a romanticized idol, in this case Humphrey Bogart. The concepts are so parallel, I imagine Allen must have been reflecting on his past films and thought, “That’s a clever idea, I bet I could make a much more serious movie out of it,” and he did.
The themes in Manhattan are not new to anyone familiar with Allen’s career. Familiar as well is the obligatory Woody Allen proxy character, and much of this film’s success is owed to Owen Wilson’s spot on performance in this role. He delivers all of the neuroses and insecurities, while avoiding the pitfalls of a straight Woody Allen impression (see Jason Biggs in Anything Else, among other examples). Wilson takes this character, who has over the past six decades become something of a caricature, and lends it new life. As refreshing as this is for Allen, it is equally welcome for Wilson who, having made his share of garbage, is often wonderful in hands of a skilled director such as Allen or Wes Anderson.
Aside from Wilson, performances were universally excellent. Rachel McAdams excels as the detestable harpy, and it feels strange and unfamiliar to hate her so much. I imagine she must have enjoyed the change of pace from her traditional role of beautiful and submissive object of affection. There were some amusing and pleasurable (albeit sometimes distracting) cameo performances of historical figures, including Kathy Bates as Gertrude Stein and Adrien Brody as Salvador Dalí. Corey Stoll is hilarious as Ernest Hemingway.
The primary place where this film loses points for me is in its lack of universal relatablity. Sure, we’ve all experienced the feeling of wishing we were from somewhere else (and Gil loosely makes this universal connection in a speech towards the end), but this movie felt to me to be about something much more specific. I wasn’t able to relate to Gil’s struggle, as I’ve never pined for a particular time or place to the extent that it disrupts my personal relationships and professional productivity, and I don’t think many people have. As a result, the stakes seemed somewhat low. It seems that this fetishization of the 1920s is familiar to Allen, and is evidenced by the soundtracks to virtually all of his movies, but there wasn’t quite enough here for the rest of us. Often the love story is front and center in Woody Allen movies, and although Allen’s personal views and experiences on romance are not something that most of us can relate to, the theme is universal. The love story here takes a back seat to Gil’s internal struggle, and this is much less relatable.
That being said, I thought this was a very good film. I will not jump on board with those who proclaim that the movie heralds “the return of Woody Allen,” for I neither consider this an incomparable triumph, nor do I think he ever really left (say what you will, haters, but I enjoyed Whatever Works). If I were to score this on a Woody Allen scale of 0 to 10, with ten being Annie Hall and zero being The Curse of the Jade Scorpion (which would be generous), I’d say this gets a 7.5. Of course, the Woody Allen scale applies a pretty severe curve, hence my overall score: