“Midnight in Paris” is an unexpected late-career gem from an auteur who has been on autopilot for more than a decade, cranking out shopworn genre tributes and forgettable romantic comedies.
At first blush, “Midnight” looks like a Parisian take on “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” - a love triangle whose main purpose is to show off a European city for the tourist bureau that is helping out with the financing. Opening with a familiar series of picture postcard shots of Paris rooftops, notable boulevards and museums, “Midnight” soon tacks into surprising territory.
Owen Wilson plays Gil, a good-natured but dissatisfied Hollywood screenwriter who, on a visit to Paris with his fiancee, Inez (Rachel McAdams), begins to yearn to live there, amid the memories of the “movable feast” of the 1920s, famously chronicled by Ernest Hemingway.
Gil is a 21st-century version of the neurotic, questing creative type that Woody Allen played in his best-loved films. Mr. Wilson is remarkably good in this role, in part because he shares with Mr. Allen a complete lack of guile as an actor. Throughout his career, Mr. Wilson has specialized in playing comic characters that are incapable of subtext, rambling as if reading from a thought bubble.
By contrast, Inez is all guile. Coldly attractive, acquisitive and shallow, she punishes Gil by refusing to indulge his fantasies about making a life in Paris and subjects him to the company of her friend Paul (Michael Sheen), a pompous academic who is in the habit of discoursing without pause about art, architecture, history and literature. Paul’s windy allocutions are the best parodies of pseudo-intellectual bilge to issue from Mr. Allen’s pen since the heady days of “Manhattan” and “Annie Hall.”
Gil then finds a most unexpected escape from the annoyances of his present-day life - he slips into the very past he romanticizes. A mysterious antique limousine ushers him into the company of luminaries such as Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dali and more. (Corey Stoll is particularly excellent as Hemingway, playing up the hypermasculine myth for the film’s biggest laughs.)
To Gil’s delight, his literary and artistic heroes take an authentic interest in his novel and encourage his flirtations with the model Adriana (Marion Cotillard, who won an Oscar for her turn as Edith Piaf in “La Vie en Rose”). As he juggles life between the daytime and nighttime worlds, Gil finds himself increasingly drawn to the past and contemptuous of the present.
Mr. Allen isn’t pushing any grand philosophy here. While the fantasy element is foreshadowed by an argument between Gil and Paul over the existence of “golden ages” in history, the journey into the 1920s is pure escapism. It’s a sweet and indulgent fairy tale that is perhaps Mr. Allen’s finest depiction of falling in love in his long career, and certainly his most enjoyable comedy since “Broadway Danny Rose.”
TITLE: “Midnight in Paris”
CREDITS: Written and directed by Woody Allen
RATING: PG-13, for sexual reference and smoking
RUNNING TIME: 100 minutes
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS
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