Director: Woody Allen
By Marilyn Ferdinand
I am such a sucker! I haven’t liked a Woody Allen film in years, even after trying a couple that people whose opinions I respect have assured me I’d love. When I started reading the glowing pronouncements on Midnight in Paris, I was wary, but receptive. When the comments compared it favorably with Bullets Over Broadway (1994), my favorite Allen film, I decided to try my luck once again. Silly, silly, but something in me still seems to want to give Woody Allen the benefit of the doubt.
But, it’s no use. Midnight in Paris is a sketchy film by the 78-year-old director who really is whistling in the dark, trying to come to terms with the terrifying end of his life by escaping into the past. That he is upfront about his fear of death—allowing his stand-in in this film, screenwriter and aspiring novelist Gil Pender (Owen Wilson), to exclaim it for him—and aware that he needs to live his life in the present, hoping things will turn out as well for him as he contrived for Gil, does not really make a for satisfying movie. Rather, we end up in another Allen therapy session, though certainly it is more fun to listen to the analysand relate his dreams than to listen to him complain about his sex life while laying on a couch.
Gil is in Paris playing the tourist with his fiancée Inez (Rachel McAdams) and her parents John (Kurt Fuller) and Helen (Mimi Kennedy). The dreamy, liberal Gil is a strange bedfellow for Inez, who, like her parents, is a staunch conservative who is interested in maintaining her luxurious lifestyle in Southern California. Her engagement to the rich and successful Gil is a means to this end; if love has entered into the pact, it all comes from Gil.
Inez is impatient with Gil’s fantasies about the romance of Paris, his attachment to the time in the 1920s when writers and artists flocked to the city to partake in its creative crucible, his regrets about not remaining in Paris when he was a young man visiting for the first time, and his desire to rectify that mistake now. Reconnecting with her friends Paul (Michael Sheen) and Carol (Nina Arianda) by chance, Inez prefers to bask in Paul’s pedantic erudition—he’s apparently an expert on everything—and entertaining excursions to nightclubs and country retreats, to walking the streets of Paris with Gil.
One night, Inez goes off dancing with Paul and Carol, while Gil manages to get lost on his walk. He stops to reorient himself just as midnight strokes on a clock in the square. An ancient roadster pulls up, and he is invited by its occupants to drive with them back into the 1920s, where he spends the next few nights meeting Zelda (Alison Pill) and F. Scott Fitzgerald (Tom Hiddleston), Ernest Hemingway (Corey Stoll), Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates), Pablo Picasso (Marcial Di Fonzo Bo), and other luminaries of the time. Most important, he meets Adriana (Marion Cotillard), an art groupie currently involved with Picasso with whom he begins a romance that will take him even further back in time, to Adriana’s fantasy of Paris’ Golden Age, La Belle Époque.
Just in case we’ve forgotten that most of the films Allen makes are about himself, he has Wilson act as his doppelganger, complete with the cinched, slightly baggy-fronted pants Allen always wears in the wardrobe translation of his castration anxiety. Wilson channels the Woody Allen persona quite well—I know this because he had me gritting my teeth and suppressing my annoyance often enough. Inez and her parents are written with all the vehemence Allen can muster for rich neocon Republicans, including a speech John gives about the noble people in the Tea Party movement that is clearly meant to elicit hisses from the audience. Of course, Inez never wants to have sex with Gil, cheats on him with Paul, and answers the call of creaky plot device when Allen decides to have some “madcap fun” by having Gil try to conceal his theft of Inez’s pearl earrings as a present to Adriana when Inez looks for them for no apparent reason. The scene allows Allen to poke the Republicans again with Inez’s instant prosecution of the maid she suspects of stealing them, while Wilson delivers Allen’s trademark stammered lies.
Allen opens the film with a dozen or so picture-postcard shots of famous Paris landmarks. As I am planning a trip to Paris this fall, I found these of interest, but they make for some pretty static filmmaking. Gil is a gushing neophyte in the heady world of continental sophistication, meeting each famous person with a “gosh-oh-golly” enthusiasm, yet being accepted immediately by all of them without even a comment about his strange, inappropriate clothing. Gertrude Stein reads Gil’s novel and declares it an exceedingly good effort in need of only a little more imaginative flight. Allen should have taken that advice himself—it doesn’t take a genius to create atmosphere by shooting in Paris and putting his cast into beautiful period costumes. Paris is a mythological place to most people, so the work is more than halfway done already. And recycling his many patented obsessions about sex (unrequited here) and art in a downmarket version of Bullets Over Broadway makes this film tiresome and unoriginal.
Allen’s humor is the stuff of his early TV days. Adrien Brody as Salvador Dali gesticulates, seems fixated on drawing Gil as a rhinoceros, and calls himself “Dali” repeatedly, as though repeating words is in itself inexhaustibly funny. His best attempt at humor is writing dialogue for Hemingway that could win the International Imitation Hemingway Competition and that, I admit, had me laughing heartily, though it takes a familiarity with Hemingway to get the joke. One also must commend the casting of people who look remarkably like the famous folks they’re meant to imitate by Allen stalwart Juliet Taylor and her colleagues Stéphane Foenkinos and Patricia Kerrigan DiCerto. The Luis Buñuel look-alike, Adrien de Van, was a virtual double of the young director, but he came in for some mean-spirited humor when Gil suggests the plot of The Exterminating Angel (1962) to him and has to explain to the literal-minded Buñuel the intention of the film. Pulling out Marshall McLuhan to explain his theories to a cretinous man in a movie line in Annie Hall (1977) was a funny bit of literalizing the thoughts we all have, but having a hack screenwriter instructing a great filmmaker is an unfunny shot that suggests our hero Gil is more like Inez that anyone would care to admit.
Of course, we could assume that these episodes are entirely in Gil’s head, but Allen takes pains to create real-world artifacts, such as a book Gil buys at a flea market that turns out to be Adriana’s diary, to show that this time travel is real. It all has the feeling of It’s a Wonderful Life in teaching Gil that there is no true Golden Age in the past and that we have to live in the real world. Of course, he ditches Inez, a foregone conclusion from our first introduction to her greedy, snobbish attitudes, and walks off into the Paris rain with a radiantly beautiful young Frenchwoman (Léa Seydoux), the romance of Paris still holding him firmly in hand, his belief in his talent restored by Gertrude Stein herself, and the millions he made writing movies no impediment to his artistic integrity.