“For all we know, Paris might be the hottest place in the universe.” Owen Wilson in Midnight in Paris
Fondly recalling the opening of his own Manhattan, Woody Allen’s breezy comedy Midnight in Paris begins with a series of Parisian postcard shots set to Sidney Bechet’s lilting, soulful “Si Tu Vois Ma Mere.” Allen’s affection for clarinet and Dixieland jazz make the musical choice typical, but the song is even more appropriate considering Bechet’s connection to Paris beginning in the 1920s, a time when the city was a magnet for Western culture populated by famous expatriate Americans and alive with a vibrant art scene. Right away we know this is an idealized vision and it’s a perfect start to a wonderful, wistful cinematic French kiss to the City of Light; a movie for romantics who believe a time and a place can be magic.
It is a fantasy of this 20th century Parisian golden age that beckons to Gil (Owen Wilson), a successful screenwriter from Pasadena who romanticizes the idea of the struggling artist and who dreams of writing a novel like Ernest Hemingway. Having spent time in the city as a young man, Gil returns with his fiancé Inez (Rachel McAdams), a materialist immune to the city’s magic and suspicious of her future husband’s need for anything more fulfilling than making lots and lots of money. While walking back to his hotel one night alone, Gil loses his way only to stumble upon the after-hours Paris of his dreams. There among the drinkers, the dancers and the partiers, he meets the beautiful and mysterious Adriana (Marion Cotillard), a woman who understands his creative drive and who also shares his obsession with a Paris of a different age. In the city after midnight, will Gil find the inspiration to finish his novel? Will he be able to convert Inez to Paris’ abundant charms or will he have to make a choice between his fiancée and the city he’s fallen in love with?
Always kind of a scruffy, puppy dog presence in films, Owen Wilson here tones down the nerdy insistence he brings to Wes Anderson’s pictures while keeping the endearing boyishness. As Gil, he’s the surrogate everyone looks for in Woody Allen movies that don’t have Woody Allen in them, but Wilson never stoops to impersonation. In place of Allen’s cynical East Coast edge, he’s got a sunnier California vibe. Gil is an intellectual, but he’s laid back about it and the unfussy Wilson is a perfect fit. The actor’s offhand way with the dialogue is also just right for Allen’s material in that it doesn’t oversell the jokes. One of the best lines (about surrealists) is handled so subtly you almost don’t notice it at first and it’s even better for being a little bit nonchalant.
A somewhat brittle counterpart to Wilson’s Gil, Rachel McAdams is equally impressive as Inez simply because she’s not so goddamn likable for a change. Adorability has long been the actress’s stock in trade (and it is admittedly irresistible), but here she gamely lets it go. Inez isn’t a bitch exactly, her wants and needs are reasonable, but they’re completely at odds with where Gil is headed and she’s definitely the villain of the piece. McAdams might not be the obvious first choice for the bad guy, but she runs with it and it works. Stepping out of what might be her zone of comfort and trying something new, this is yet another facet to McAdams and it adds versatility to her already engaging screen presence.
As the pretentious American Paul, an old college crush of Inez’ who turns up, Michael Sheen drops both the English accent and any of the nobility he brought to many of his previous roles. Paul is the sort of phony intellectual who thinks he knows a little about a lot and is careful to make sure everyone else knows he knows as well. At the same time, Sheen wisely keeps Paul from being completely boorish. His dislikable smugness builds up in small, easily to swallow doses.
Beautiful Marion Cotillard has a difficult part to play as Gil’s perfect woman Adriana. She risks being little more than a fetish object – and she’d be a dark, exotic and sexy one – but Cotillard brings a note of dreamy melancholy to her; the soft, unspoken sadness of a woman born out of her time. Though she appears to be living the high life amongst the literati, there’s something missing for Adriana and it gives her an air of mystery. Part personified temptation and part individual with needs of her own, Cotillard is just right.
In addition to the main characters, Allen has also assembled a great supporting cast for a number of small roles. Mimi Kennedy and Kurt Fuller are great as WASP-y future in-laws Wendy and John; perfect foils for liberal leaning Gil. Meanwhile, Kathy Bates shines briefly as the mother hen around whom Adriana’s coterie of artistic eccentrics revolves. These include Tom Hiddleston who is terrific as a writer with wife troubles, his wife a flighty Allison Pill and Adrien Brody who nearly steals the whole show in his few small scenes as a delightfully flamboyant Spanish artist.
Less cynical than his last few films, Midnight in Paris finds Woody Allen in a better mood and working in a lighter key. Consistently amusing but never straining for a big laugh, it feels effortless yet never lazy. Allen is fully engaged by his milieu and the challenge of working with a new group of actors. The story – borderline silly at times but entertainingly so – mostly works itself out in expected ways, but it has a couple of turns I didn’t see coming that give it an extra measure of depth. This is the director yearning for the Paris of another age, but in the end he seems to conclude that maybe the best place is here and the best time is now. In its own way, that sentiment is both realistic and satisfyingly optimistic.
Midnight in Paris. USA / Spain 2011. Written and directed by Woody Allen. Cinematography by Darius Khondji. Edited by Alisa Lepselter. Starring Owen Wilson, Rachel McAdams, Marion Cotillard, Michael Sheen, Kathy Bates, Adrien Brody, Carla Bruni, Tom Hiddleston, Kurt Fuller, Mimi Kennedy, Alison Pill, Lea Seydoux. 1 hour 34 minutes. MPAA rated PG-13. 4.5 stars (out of 5)
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