Movie Review: Midnight in Paris

June 19, 2011


The good news is that Midnight in Paris is one of the stronger Woody Allen films of the last 20 years. There are, I submit, three main phases of Allen’s iconic career as a director.

First came the slapstick comedies of Sleeper and Bananas, culminating in his Academy Awards for Annie Hall in 1977. Then came the middle period, focusing mostly on New York angst in films like Crimes and Misdemeanors and Hannah and Her Sisters. Allen seemed to fade away after Husbands and Wives and his infamous “scandal” of the early 1990’s.

The third phase, the European phase, began this last decade when Allen left New York and began shooting his films in England and across Europe. Midnight in Paris, a clear valentine to the City of Lights, ranks right up there with Vicky Christina Barcelona for my favorite movie of this latest chapter in the career of one of the truly great filmmakers.

The plot is promising. Gil (Owen Wilson) is a hack Hollywood screenwriter, visiting Paris with his fiancé Inez (Rachel McAdams) and his soon-to-be in-laws. Gil would love to live in Paris, write the Great American Novel and live the life of Hemingway and Fitzgerald in the Paris of the 1920’s. Inez only wants to shop and hang out with her snobby, know-it-all American friends Paul (Michael Sheen) and Helen (Mimi Kennedy).

Gil ends up wandering the streets of Paris at night and through certain plot devices, he finds himself magically transported back to the 1920’s, able to meet Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, and an endless Who’s Who of literary and artistic figures from the era. For the rest of the movie, Gil moves back and forth through time, contrasting the world he has now with the world he thinks he would rather be in.

Paris is the true star of this movie –Allen tips a hat to the classic opening montage to Manhattan with an equally impressive cinematic introduction to Paris at the beginning. The city literally becomes a supporting character throughout the movie, which alone makes it must viewing for any Francophile.

The actors playing Fitzgerald (Tom Hiddleston), Hemingway (Corey Stoll), and Stein (Kathy Bates) are amazingly spot-on in their characterizations. The only disappointment is that these important writers from Paris of the 1920’s disappear so quickly from the story.

Allen’s script quickly dissolves into a parlor game of how many famous people from history can Gil encounter in 90 minutes? The focus shifts from literary to artistic figures, from the 1920’s to the 1890’s–one can only wonder how much stronger the film would be if it had stuck to the Fitzgerald and Hemingway characters.

Things seem to fizzle out in the present as well. The in-laws and the fiancé are all one-note characters. The snobby, know-it-all couple disappears completely during the second half of the movie and the make-cute, predictable ending seems out of place for a Woody Allen movie.

I suggested that this film was one of the best from Allen’s European phase and that’s true, but that’s a bit like saying that Abba ranks among my favorite Swedish singers. This is so much stronger than recent Allen flops like Scoop and You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, but  . . .

Five of us saw Midnight in Paris together and afterwards, we all seemed to agree. Definitely worth seeing on the big screen, but more of a matinee flick.  Best part of the movie was all the shots of Paris. The storyline was clever, but the second half not as strong as the first. We all wanted it to be more.

That is the curse that haunts Woody Allen to this day. When you’re responsible for making some of the best comedies in film history, audiences hold you to a higher standard.  We always want it to be more. I’m glad I let Woody Allen guide me around Paris, but I also found myself driving home, wondering about how much better the trip could have been.

Midnight in Paris is playing at the Palm Theatre in San Luis Obispo and the Fair Oaks Theater in Arroyo Grande.