being a woody allen fan in the last decade or so hasn’t been easy. he is such a rarity that few artists can match not only his longevity but productivity as well. since the 70s, allen has average more than one film per year, exceeding most of his contemporaries like scorsese, coppola, george lucas, or terrence malick. so it’s quite a pleasant surprise that midnight in paris, allen’s 42nd theatrical feature as a director, is not only well received by critics but also his biggest commercial hit. maybe people think that it’s a sequel to that paris hilton home movie.
another surprise is that midnight in paris actually lives up to its success. though critically praised, i didn’t care much for the crimes and misdemeanors british redux match point. the last allen movie i love came out fifteen years ago, 1997’s deconstructing harry.
the allen surrogate this time is played by owen wilson, who is unexpectedly winning as hollywood screenwriter gil. gil is in france with his fiancée inez (a bottle rocket reference?), played by rachel mcadams, and her parents (flirting with disaster’s kurt fuller and mimi kennedy), who are the 1% and also, of course, tea party republicans. it would please me if they are the designated villain/punchline in every movie i see. it’s the movies, not the news, fuck fair and balanced.
gil is in love with paris, the city, more than his fiancée. one night while inez is out with sorbonne lecturer and his girlfriend (michael sheen and nina arianda), gil is magically transported to his idea of the golden age, paris in the 1920s, where he gets to meet cole porter, the fitzgeralds, hemingway, picasso, dali, luis bunuel, t.s. eliot, and gertrude stein, who provides gil some professional critique on his novel. there’s also marion cotillard as adriana, who’s a love interest not only to gil but also picasso and hemingway. one missed opportunity is that gil didn’t run into ayn rand so allen can stick it to her in being the sudden icon of the tea party republicans.
these humorous encounters are entirely dependent on your knowledge. at this point i should mention that i am a film buff with an english degree. the standouts for me are kathy bates’ gertrude stein, who in a few scenes accomplishes far more interesting things than all her scenes in the u.s. office; adrien brody’s dali, who can’t stop talking about rhinoceros; in treatment’s alison pill and thor’s tom hiddleston as the fitzgeralds; and corey stoll from salt and lucky number slevin as hemingway, who talks like his novels. gil gives a filmic idea to bunuel that i thought was for the discreet charm of the bourgeoisie but turns out it’s for the exterminating angel. i didn’t get that djuna barnes joke until i look it up online afterwards.
unlike most time travel movies, midnight in paris doesn’t settle and stop at the premise. while no one expects allen to get technical on the time travel premise, midnight in paris doesn’t simply make anachronism and meta/post-modern/revisionist jokes. we’re not talking about the wedding singer here. there is a stretch where you wonder who gil is going to meet next that somehow manages to be fun in itself but the film cleverly has a second and a third act, with a message to boot.
allen has often been accused of making the same movie over and over again. i don’t think that’s a fair judgment. yes, allen makes films that involve characters within a certain social class and occupation. there are also the one liners and strong voices that are unmistakably allen’s. midnight in paris certainly has those, in addition to the disdain to the conservatives, the 1% and the well educated. there is also the magical realism that we’ve seen before in zelig, purple rose of cairo, new york stories, and everyone says i love you.
the film drags a bit in its modern time sequences, mostly because gil and inez are never convincing as a couple. yet, despite all these elements, midnight in paris works because it is so clearly structured and never loses focus. these elements are merely mentioned instead of being the driving force of the story. it is also less plot-driven than most allen movies, and it turns out to be a good thing. as seen in the opening postcard sequence, it’s not a grand epic like manhattan but more of a light and sweet confection, an infectious pop song, a popcorn movie for people who like to read, or are aware of arts and history. it may not be epic or grandiose but it fulfills its minor modest goal so splendidly that it’s my favorite allen movie since deconstructing harry.
p.s. the genesis of midnight in paris seems to be allen’s 1971 short story titled twenties memory, which you can read below. coincidentally, allen’s first time in paris was during his first movie, what’s new pussycat, which kicked off our woody allen week.
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