Midnight in Paris (2011)

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.

  • Eric Grayson spoke:
    2nd/08/2011 to 3:43 pm

    I loved it, but then I loved Bullets over Broadway, too. I’ve come to expect a Woody surrogate in his films of late, and Wilson does it better than I’d expected. It doesn’t rank with Woody’s best films, but then it’s a lot better than Deconstructing Harry or Small Time Crooks. I respect your opinion, agree with most of your points, but I still give it a passing grade.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    2nd/08/2011 to 3:54 pm

    Eric – I love Bullets Over Broadway, a brightly written, brilliantly acted, clever film on every level. I know Woody is elderly, and most filmmakers don’t do their best work at the end of their lives (Bunuel a very notable exception, which may be why he came in for a drubbing in this film), but the rapturous reviews for this trifle have me astonished. I never put down people who enjoy films, so it’s great you liked your experience. I’m just so over Woody Allen and his Borscht Belt shtick. Throwing pretty picture of Paris at me just isn’t enough.

  • Kenji Fujishima spoke:
    2nd/08/2011 to 4:08 pm

    I found myself loving this film while I was watching it, mostly, I suspect, because I connected immediately with Gil’s desire to transcend his own mediocrity and play with the artistic “big boys” in his fantasy of 1920s Paris. (Hey, I know this desire quite well!) But the more I think about it, the more Midnight in Paris simply doesn’t hold up, at least thematically. Its attempted critique of “nostalgia” is half-assed at best; Gil gives one speech towards the end about the dangers of idealizing past eras, but this doesn’t track with the rest of the movie, which pretty much idealizes 1920s Paris while giving maybe one or two minor hints of the dark side that might have been hiding underneath the surface glitz and glamour. The way Allen ends the film pretty much gives the game away, for me. I enjoyed large parts of Midnight in Paris—enjoyed ’em more than you apparently did, Marilyn—but in no way would I consider this the late masterpiece that many seem to think it is.

    (Oh, and sorry for the shameless self-promotion, but I explained my own thoughts on Midnight in Paris at my blog: http://mylife24fps.blogspot.com/2011/06/literary-interlude-putting-midnight-in.html.)

  • Marilyn spoke:
    2nd/08/2011 to 5:13 pm

    Kenji – Excellent analysis on your site. I read A Moveable Feast long ago, and your quote from it prompts me to take it up again soon. I don’t think Woody believes his own propaganda, as he has steadfastly continued to pursue his fantasies in real life and in movie after movie. Indeed this film is a pastiche of many of his themes and devices – celebrity worship, unfaithfulness, May-December romance, art vs. commerce, psychoanalysis, stepping from reality into fantasy. He is probably not capable of changing now, so as long as he continues to make pictures, they will be recycles, nothing bold like Crimes and Misdemeanors or truly witty. If he wants to live out his days in a halcyon Paris, well, there are worse ways to end one’s run.

  • Greg Ferrara spoke:
    2nd/08/2011 to 5:15 pm

    Wilson channels the Woody Allen persona quite well—I know this because he had me gritting my teeth and suppressing my annoyance often enough.

    Now, I have to ask, and I may have asked this before, years ago at Cinema Styles: If you don’t like Woody Allen, the person, and it seems to me you don’t, then do you think, maybe, that your annoyance at his characterizations (his or his surrogate) spoil the experience of the film for you? What I mean is, the film may be better than you think but you’re so annoyed at the persona it spoils any receptive feelings you might have. I know I have actors like this. For instance, as good a movie as I’ve heard it is, I just can’t get through PUNCH DRUNK LOVE because I truly, madly, deeply hate Adam Sandler. His very presence ruins the movie for me before it even starts.

    Anyway, I can see both sides of what folks are saying here. One, I didn’t think it was a late-Allen masterpiece by a long shot but Two, I thought it was very enjoyable and seems like too lighthearted a film to direct any vitriol at. I’m with Kenji in that I enjoyed it but I don’t find it “half-assed” rather, light and fluffy.

    I’m just so over Woody Allen and his Borscht Belt shtick. Throwing pretty picture of Paris at me just isn’t enough

    Oh come on. This implies that those who enjoyed the film are mindless dupes who took in the scenery while their little empty heads giggled and gawked.

    Also, I loved Michael Sheen. As long as we all know their are surrogates here, he is the Alan Alda surrogate. I thought he did a splendid job as did all the supporting cast. Anyway, I enjoyed it but, no, it’s no masterwork.

  • Greg Ferrara spoke:
    2nd/08/2011 to 5:58 pm

    Oh, and a P.S. – I too found the EXTERMINATING ANGEL joke odd. It seems like the joke should have been that Bunuel loved the idea, not be confused by it. That seemed off and weird.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    2nd/08/2011 to 5:59 pm

    Greg – I admit having an antipathy for Woody Allen, but that is not the problem here for me. I thought the humor was mean-spirited and not very funny. I thought the film had its own snobbish conceits and that none of the people in this film were more than sketches. The film offers us a sort of star-gazer experience that is fun and total fantasy for Gil due to his acceptance into their circle. Why does Allen feel the need to make the time travel real? It would have worked if it were a fantasy. As it stands, the film glorifies a character who really doesn’t deserve it.

    As for accusing me of calling people mindless dupes, where in the section you quoted did the words “you” or “they” come in. I use “I” and “me.” Be fair.

  • Greg Ferrara spoke:
    2nd/08/2011 to 6:06 pm

    As for accusing me of called people mindless dupes, where in the section you quoted did the words “you” or “they” come in. I use “I” and “me.” Be fair.

    You’re right, I was reading too much into that.

    I don’t think the movie would work as fantasy. I think the idea of living in the past is playing off the conceit of actually, literally going into the past. Not fantasy, but for real.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    2nd/08/2011 to 6:13 pm

    Greg – I think literally living in the past is another trick, an idea that should have been left on the table. Why? Because then it allows Gil’s fantasies of the greatness of the 20s to come true. He meets all his heroes, he’s lauded as a talented writer, he has a beautiful woman fall for him and escapes a miserable fate with Inez, and he gets an even better woman in the present. It’s all too good to be true, so it really shouldn’t be. People call this film Woody’s love letter to Paris, but it’s really a love letter to his fantasy life.

  • Greg Ferrara spoke:
    2nd/08/2011 to 6:30 pm

    How I took it was that Gil was going to a literal time and place but it all revolved around his fantasy. That’s why when he goes back further with Adriana, she also meets all of her idols. So, it’s literally a separate time and place but one of their making. In a way, it’s time travel and fantasy woven together.

    And yes, it is a love letter to his fantasy life, I agree. But what’s wrong with that?

  • Marilyn spoke:
    2nd/08/2011 to 6:34 pm

    So Gil and Adriana are creating their own reality. But that seems to suggest that they deserve to be happy in their fantasy, whereas the P.I., because he’s working for the evil Tea Bagger, is certain to be executed for infiltrating Versailles during the reign of Louis XIV.

    Not a thing, but then why is everyone calling it a love letter to Paris?

  • Greg Ferrara spoke:
    2nd/08/2011 to 6:43 pm

    You know, the P.I. joke was the one part of the movie that made me bristle. I thought the joke did EXACTLY what you just pointed out, which is, throw a wrench into the whole schemata of time travel/fantasy. I’d edit that out or film it, obviously, where they say the detective has disappeared and you see him living the life of luxury during the reign of Louis XIV, not caring to ever go back.

    There are a few scenes like that where it definitely reveals flaws in the story. I think it’s definitely a fantasy of their own making, and Woody screws that up with the P.I. joke.

    And I guess people are calling it a love letter to Paris because Gil is so enamored of Paris and it’s easier to say that without further explanation than it’s a love letter to Woody Allen’s fantasy life.

  • Rod spoke:
    2nd/08/2011 to 9:48 pm

    Yessireebob, this sounds like some prime Allen bullshit.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    2nd/08/2011 to 10:59 pm

    Stick a fork in him. He’s done.

  • Rod spoke:
    3rd/08/2011 to 2:38 am

    The funny thing is he mildly impressed me with Vicky Cristina Barcelona, where he managed to make a film outside his own usual milieu, and he successfully transferred his old dynamic with Tony Roberts onto younger female characters, appropriately tweaked, with an edge of libertine indulgence he never allowed himself before. I did dare to wonder if he was going to start loosening himself up more. But as usual with his new beginnings, he seems to have quickly reverted to form.

  • Pat spoke:
    3rd/08/2011 to 6:55 am

    Marilyn –

    Well, I’m relieved to find someone else who was less than enchanted with “Midnight in Paris,” (and, as I think you know, I actually like Woody Allen.) It felt, to me,a bit recyled from older, better films and prose works — see “A Twenties Memory” which I believe is in his “Without Feathers” collection for many of the same jokes. I was also disappointed in Wilson as a Woody stand-in., and Inez and her famly were such gross, uninspired caricatures.

    But, like Greg,I did find Michael Sheen very funny.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    3rd/08/2011 to 8:24 am

    Rod – I think Allen’s films that stray outside his formula are among his best and most interesting work. Crimes and Misdemeanors was a real revelation, and though VCB is not one I’ve seen, I’m pleased to hear he experimented with real sex, not neurotic sex. Bullets was so good that I wonder if, like his character, he didn’t have help with it.

    Pat – I actually liked the California vibe Wilson injected in to the Woody character. Michael Sheen can’t help but be good, but like all the actors, he was given very little to work with. I haven’t read Allen’s prose – I don’t like him sufficiently to care, but I’m not surprised. He was on autopilot with this film.

  • Pat spoke:
    3rd/08/2011 to 9:35 am

    Rod, this: he successfully transferred his old dynamic with Tony Roberts onto younger female characters, appropriately tweaked, with an edge of libertine indulgence he never allowed himself before.

    is a brilliant insight, and admittedly one that didn’t even occur to me when I saw VCB. In retrospect, I can see exactly how Vicki and Christina represent the old Roberts and Allen archtypes in slightly ‘tweaked’ form. When I see the film again(and I will at some point), it’ll be interesting to watch those two characters with your comment in mind.

  • Greg Ferrara spoke:
    3rd/08/2011 to 6:12 pm

    Pat, I love A Twenties Memory. I have it in my Getting Even collection. While I liked MIDNIGHT IN PARIS, I must admit, it doesn’t come close to A Twenties Memory for clever jokes.

    Off topic, that collection also has A Little Louder, Please, my favorite Woody Allen story ever. Mimes make me laugh now because I think of that story and instinctively feel like guessing out loud what they’re doing.

  • Rachel spoke:
    3rd/08/2011 to 11:55 pm

    (stepping in at the tail end of this conversation)

    For the most part, Marilyn, I agree with your points. I enjoyed Midnight in Paris quite a bit when I saw it, but mainly because it was a pick-me-up when I really needed one.

    For me, the main problem wasn’t in trying to tease out the reality of Gil’s fantasy time, but in how brightly polished and ultimately predictable that fantasy is. He meets all of his idols but he only gets to see the surface side of them (even the hints about Zelda’s dark fate brush quickly by). So in a sense, there are no surprises for him; he’s already read the Cliff Notes. The side trip into La Belle Epoque is one of the few moments where the film felt like it might be going down an unexpected path but then it slides right into a heavy-handed speech about not living in a fantasy world. Except, as you point out, by the end he’s traded one fantasy for another. I kept wanting a little darkness, a little strangeness to roughen up the edges, but in this fantasy, everything’s rose-hued.

    As a side note, I kept hoping that Inez would get her own trip into the fantasy land but alas, she doesn’t get to have any dreams.

    I can’t be too critical because, as I said, I liked it at the time and I had fun with all the in-jokes. And Michael Sheen, as Greg mentioned, was great. But I can’t help thinking that this movie will end up in that Amelie category of films I enjoyed but become pretty problematic when I think about them too hard.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    4th/08/2011 to 7:42 am

    Rachel – Welcome. I think the predictability of the fantasy is why this should have been a straight-on fantasy. Everything was too ideal. An interesting follow-up would be how Adriana feels about La Belle Epoque a couple of years down the line.

  • Adam Zanzie spoke:
    5th/08/2011 to 1:46 am

    Marilyn, you know how you once said on Ryan’s blog that one of your reservations towards Woody Allen is the way he treats his female characters — i.e., that they feel like cheap representations of real women in real life who have made his life a misery? I had your criticisms in the back of my mind when I walked into this film. I was immensely enjoying Midnight in Paris up until the point when I slowly began to realize that this is yet another Allen film to which that criticism applies.

    While I suppose I liked the film a bit more than you did, what ultimately made me hesitate to embrace it as any “return to form” for Allen were, well, the film’s archetypal villains. Inez is little more than a ball-buster. The parents-in-law are the butts of some easy Tea Party gags: as much as I share Allen’s left-of-center politics, he’s hitting the nail too neatly on the head here, and I went from enjoying the Republican jokes to recognizing them as cheap ways to get laughs out of predominantly liberal audiences (as my own accompanying audience did). Though I enjoy partisan political jokes every now and then in movies, they’re a little indefensible here.

    HOWEVER, a friend of mine who loved Midnight in Paris (and who is conservative) reminded me that most of Allen’s films are filled with “types”, and that the reason why the parents-in-law are nonliberal is because their worldviews are exactly the kind of worldviews that spurn Gil into his daydreaming. I have to confess I identified with Gil’s fantasies, although where he dreams about 1920’s Paris, I’ve had dreams about 1970’s Hollywood. Actually though, by the time Gil had gotten to his big speech at the end about how artists are miserable in EVERY era, I was already way ahead of him. I remembered what you and Shane told me back during our Jonathan Livingston Seagull discussion about a bumper sticker you guys have which reads, “I’d rather be here.”

    I agree with Rachel above that the movie might have been even more interesting if the film’s villains had gone on fantasies of their own, a complaint also lodged by Craig Simpson in his otherwise positive review (http://themanfromporlock.blogspot.com/2011/06/past-imperfect-midnight-in-paris.html). About the Bunuel gag, I didn’t find it mean-spirited; I mean, even though Gil is a hack writer, he doesn’t *want* to be. For all we know, he’ll have the same ambitions that Bunuel will have someday, and therefore the scene consists of two young artists exchanging ideas. I must admit that I had my Bunuel flicks confused and thought they were discussing the future plot for Discreet Charm of the Bourgoisie (alas, I haven’t seen Exterminating Angel yet, which explains why I got my “surrealistic dinner” movies mixed up).

    Since I liked the film’s romantic atmosphere, I’d generally recommend it, even though it’s not one of my favorite Allen films. You’ve talked about how you’d prefer Allen stick to fun comedies in this last phase of his career, but I’d be interested to see him go back to his darker films, a la Interiors and Match Point. I seem to be in the minority regarding my admiration for Match Point, actually. It’s been dismissed as a non-comedic variation on Crimes and Misdemeanors, but I found it more similar to Todd Field’s In the Bedroom as a superior exercise in quietly blood-soaked dramatics (if that makes any sense — I’m always trying to make up my own little catchphrases). To be fair, that was another Allen film with unsupportive female characters, but then again *everyone* in that movie was dirty.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    5th/08/2011 to 7:21 am

    Adam – I’m flattered that my comments have made such an impression on you, and you’re right, this film is filled with types. I don’t agree with your friend that the conservative worldviews are what send Gil off into his supposed paradise. His paradise is about the romance of art, not a world of liberal politics. There is a great line in My Dinner with Andre in which Wallace Shawn says that when he was young all he thought about was art and “now, all I think about is money.” Gil, of course, has a lot of money, so he doesn’t really have to think about it.

    I don’t prefer Allen to stick to comedy, because he’s clearly lost the touch. I like his more complex films, of which Crimes and Misdemeanors is a favorite. C&M has a lot in common with this film in that the (anti)hero gets everything he wants.

    As for the Bunuel bit, he’s basically saying that Bunuel is a fraud, a surrealist without the imagination to get his idea about a critique of the bourgeoisie. Plus, Gil isn’t all that young; look at him, he’s quite haggard.

  • Sam Juliano spoke:
    5th/08/2011 to 4:57 pm

    I’m very late to this post (my apologies, but the last few days have had me held at bay) but I must say it’s a great achievement both in essay and comment section.

    FERDY-AT-FILMS is alive and well, thank you very much, and this review really expresses my own views. I also found this film frustrating and sketchy, and difficult to connect with despite the oft-lyrical expression of street life and Paris in the rain. Problem I have is that the writer is much too bumbling to believe, even if the performance registers the intended presentation. It’s intermittantly charming and tedious as a film; hence in a critical sense I find it overrated.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    6th/08/2011 to 8:44 am

    No apologies necessary, Sam. You are usually the first (and sometimes only) commenter on the scene.

    I did enjoy the cinematography – look at the last screencap. It looks like a Monet painting. But the film was dragged down by the usual Allen story.

  • Peter L. Winkler spoke:
    22nd/12/2011 to 6:27 pm

    I saw your comments to Matt Seitz on my Facebook page and came here to read you review. I agree with you 100 perecent. One thing no one has pointed out: despite Allen’s condemnation of nostalgia, the soundtrack to this film, and most of his other films, are exemplars of a musical nostalgia. Probably my biggest problem with the film is that it is professes to be anti-nostalgia and even anti-fantasy, but peddles an even bigger fantasy. Gil ends up ridding himself of his shrewish wife-to-be, and ends up with the hottest babe in the movie who loves the romanticism of Paris in the rain. Fade to black. How much better can things get for Gil? He never suffers, never has to sacrifice anything of value or make a tough choice about anything. The film is therefore dramatically inert.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    22nd/12/2011 to 10:23 pm

    Peter – Allen’s condemnation of nostalgia is the mildest I can think of. He’s on the side of the romantics, and, of course, he plays jazz in a Dixieland band, so his music isn’t going to be “fashion forward.” The whole film is a fantasy where Gil wins life’s lottery. The rich always win, don’t they?

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