REVIEW: Midnight in Paris [2011]

Score: 9/10 | ★ ★ ★ ½

Rating: PG-13 | Runtime: 94 minutes | Release Date: May 20th, 2011 (USA)
Studio: Sony Pictures Classics
Director(s): Woody Allen
Writer(s): Woody Allen

“Nostalgia is denial”

Who knew Woody Allen could be so whimsical? I guess to ardent fans of the auteur, this question may seem ridiculous—either I’m uneducated to think he wasn’t or I’m oblivious to not realize he always was. Whichever side of the fence you fall on, nothing will deter my, quite possibly premature, musing that Midnight in Paris is my new favorite Woody film. I haven’t seen many, including barely any before Celebrity, (as in all his classics), but there is just something about this movie that put a permanent smile on my face. Much like one of my previous favorites, Deconstructing Harry, I just love the autobiographical nature and the meta-narrative on multiple levels. It’s a psychological look into this legend’s craft, a way to peer inside his insecurities about life and love in a time he’s stuck to dwell within. We all wish to have been born in the past, in a place where we can read and dream about from afar. Until we welcome our present, however, we can never truly know want it is we want.

This is where Gil Pender (Owen Wilson) resides, a crossroads on the cusp of marriage, torn between his urge to leave Hollywood and the machine he’s been churning out lucrative scripts for so he can focus on a novel and the inevitability of life in Malibu with a woman he admits conflicts with his grand ideas of the future. It is a character with perfect casting, the naïve star-struck wonderment always-present on Wilson’s face a conduit to the spectacular events soon to befall him. With low self-esteem, a complex he’ll never shake of his young freshman who failed English, and infinite questions set before him he’d rather ignore for the stunning fiancé he has nothing in common with, only when he’s left to his own devices roaming the streets of Paris after midnight does he let go of insecurity and fear. It’s a vacation away, he and Inez (a nicely loathsome Rachel McAdams) tagging along on her father’s business trip to see the beautiful city. There should be inspiration for Gil, a rekindled fervent desire to write and create, but as long as Inez is around, all that is impossible.

She, along with mother (Mimi Kennedy) and father (Kurt Fuller), can’t quite put her thumb on this man. He’s successful and able to provide for her if he stays doing what he does best. She doesn’t care that he must sell his soul to compose schlock for the big screen as long as it makes her comfortable. But Gil is too nice, he is too easygoing, rather than see the continuous manipulations, he only looks to deflect all quarrel and give in. When her friends Paul (Michael Sheen) and Carol (Nina Arianda) run into them across the Atlantic, she suddenly has reason to be joyous. Uninterested in exploring Paris with Gil, the prospect of a guided tour by the self-proclaimed expert in everything, Paul, is a treat she cannot risk missing. And just as you’d imagine, his ‘pseudo intellectual’ is the one thing Gil can’t take. That holier than thou, never admits when he’s wrong, blowhard is at the complete opposite spectrum of life from this romantic caught in awe of Paris’s alluring mystique. While Inez and Carol intently listen, slack-jawed, Gil lets his view wander into the night, yearning for a stroll in the rain.

But when he decides to leave this trio of pedantic elite for some fresh air, he never expected to find what waited. The stroke of midnight brought with it a magical hole in time as the 1920s suddenly appeared before his eyes. Quasi-drunk and without a clue as his hotel’s location, Gil finds himself getting into the car of Scott (Tom Hiddleston) and Zelda (Alison Pill) Fitzgerald, their friend Ernest Hemingway (Corey Stoll) awaiting them at a bar. It’s a who’s who of our lead’s idols, each as he had read they’d be, the tumultuous temperament of Hemingway and the true love of the Fitzgeralds. It was the era he wished he could have been born to and contemporaries he only dreamt would surround him with insight, artistic merit, and the kind of culture steeped in action rather than the stuffy intellectuals he had left back in 2010. Here he was an equal; here he belonged. And with the offer of assistance by Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates) to read his novel and the introduction to Picasso’s mistress Adriana (Marion Cotillard, it was home.

No matter the fantastical elements at play, though, Gill still woke up each morning next to Inez, desperately trying to bring her along on the adventure. She suspects brain damage and flights of fancy—much like we should—her desire to see Paul trumping any quality time with her soon-to-be husband. And while it’s a nice literary device to remove one world from the other, her absence is also necessary for his spiritual awakening. The advice of Hemingway and others on love slowly chip away at the misinformed belief he is happy; the feelings he has with Adriana unlike any he’s ever had with his fiancé. His journeys into the past become his present; the rest is merely a chore to get through until the clock chimes twelve. And through these interludes with kindred souls, Gil comes alive as Wilson gives him the wide-eyed wonderment of dream, the meekly awestruck surprise of meeting someone new, (Adrien Brody’s Salvador Dali steals the show), and the innocent charisma believably able to ensnare a beauty such as Adriana.

While the story itself is charming and enjoyable on the level of comedic fancy, it is the construct underlying the action that caught me off guard. The parallels to Woody’s own self-exile from the home he once exclusively filmed is glimpsed, the draw of Europe too much for even his New York blood; the carefully placed moments of recognition, blatantly telling the audience how what’s onscreen may in fact not be a dream, are inspired, taking us by surprise as the past is rewritten in the present—just ask Gad Elmaleh’s detective if what’s happening isn’t real; and a want of happiness is discovered, our ability to forget amidst the easiness of routine exposed. The words of inspiration from these luminaries aren’t fortune cookie wisdom spewed forth from his unconscious reservoir of hopes; they come from the mouths of legend. Woody somehow populates his Paris of the 20s with the kinds of people he would have idolized and lets them talk and act as he imagined.

I may be so smitten because of the art world inside jokes, (How was I the only one laughing when Gil tells Luis Buñuel the plot of The Exterminating Angel and his complete incomprehension?), but I find it hard the layperson won’t at least feel the magic in the air, leaving them too with a warm smile.

[1] Left to Right: Owen Wilson as Gil and Rachel McAdams as Inez. Photo by Roger Arpajou © 2011 Mediapro, Versátil Cinema & Gravier Productions, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics
[2] Left to Right: Owen Wilson as Gil and Marion Cotillard as Adriana. Photo by Roger Arpajou © 2011 Mediapro, Versátil Cinema & Gravier Productions, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics
[3] Left to Right: Alison Pill as Zelda Fitzgerald and Tom Hiddleston as F. Scott Fitzgerald. Photo by Roger Arpajou © 2011 Mediapro, Versátil Cinema & Gravier Productions, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

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