“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.

★★★★½ 

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)

23 Responses to “Midnight in Paris (2011)”

  1. Lovely review, Craig. I’m sold! Isn’t this opening Cannes tonight? Or did that already happen?

  2. Sounds like a lot of plot for a mere 94 minutes, but I can’t wait to see it. Nice review!

  3. it screened for crickets this morning and it’s making it’s public premiere tonight.

    Jeanine, it’s really not a lot of plot, I was just trying to dance around the main conceit of the film which isn’t obvious in the trailer but which every other review has revealed without even blinking. Not a big deal at all, but kind of disappointing to me. A movie like this benefits from any little surprise.

  4. This sounds exactly as I imagined it would be, Craig, and I can’t wait to see it.

    Nice to see Woody Allen bounce back after adding a few more duds to his filmography. I guess I should be grateful he’s continued to be so prolific, but it wouldn’t kill the guy to take his time. Or would it?

  5. I can’t decide WJ. I liked his last two a bit more than most folks seemed to, but I admire his laid back, unfussy attitude. He really is cranking these things out. While the Finchers and Aronofskys and PT Andersons of the world sweat over every little choice they make, Allen just keeps working. That can be a benefit and a drawback, but either way a new one is never very far away.

  6. “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.”

    Well, this sizes it up most appealingly. Allen has faltered the last several times out, and this modest return to form, is certainly an encouraging development. I know his European-set work has impressed many, especially in the case of MATCH POINT and VICKY CRISTINA BARCELONA. A four-and-a-half-star rating from you can’t be inderestimated in view of your general resistence to give high grades unless genuinely deserved.

    I’ll be there.

    Anyway, beautifully written essay.

  7. I don’t know Sam. Though reviews of Woody’s latest seem to be trending positive (one even tossed out the “M” word), there are a few grouchy holdouts. I’m still a little surprised you didn’t tumble for Vicky Cristina Barcelona so I’m at a loss to predict how Midnight in Paris will go over for you.

  8. Craig I absolutely LOVED this film. it was everything I love about everything.

  9. Yay! I saw it again just yesterday to help wash the taste of Hangover 2 out of my mouth and I loved it as much the 2nd time around if not maybe even a little bit more.

    The first 45 minutes or so I was really enjoying it, but it didn’t quite take off, but around the time his connection to Cotillard deepens it really starts to go.

    Three words: Love Adrien Brody

  10. I really want to see this film. Wish it would get here already!

  11. it opens in a city near you on 6/24:

    http://www.sonyclassics.com/midnightinparis/dates.html

  12. Tom Hiddleston really did some very great word. He consistently impresses me. He was so great in “Thor” as well.

  13. He was the best part of Thor.

    I also loved Corey Stoll as “Ernest” in Midnight in Paris.

  14. Great review (except you overlooked Carla Bruni); I agree completely! One correction: Inez is not Gil’s “fiancé.” (Hint: She’s his “fiancée.”)

  15. Would you believe I’ve gone my whole life not knowing there was an extra e for the female version?

  16. Nice, entertaining but not as clever as reported. In fact, Allen nearly uses subtitles to remind us of the more than obvious: yes, the dressed up dwarf at the Folies Bergeres is Toulouse Lautrec, yest Surrealists deserved teh name of their art. “The old days ” Were always better, thank you Woody, we got that 30 minutes ago…
    All the overreported “cliches” about Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Dali, Picasso, Lautrec are here. A little lighter hand would have made this acceptable movie a delight.

  17. Christian, I kind of felt like we were offered cliche’d portrayals of those characters because they were as much a reflection of Gil’s wishes and imagination as they were a reflection of reality. This is an idealized Paris that Gil dreams of rather than a document of how it really was. It’s a fantasy.

  18. Saw it 3 times already. One of Woody’s best in my opinion.
    Craig, I enjoyed your review and you certainly made some valid points in your critique.

    I read that this movie project was originally cancelled because it was too expensive. I also read that Woody has a script about history of Jazz Music in New Orleans and that it will not be made because of the high cost. Well there’s always hope.

  19. I haven’t heard that Midnight was almost David, but I’m glad he got it made. It’s one of my favorites of 2011.

    As for American Blues, the jazz project you mention which is about Louis Armstrong and Sidney Bechet, Woody apparently says it would cost between 80-100 million. Even his most successful film, Midnight, only made 56 domestic, but it only cost 19.

    One of the interesting things about Allen is how he maintains autonomy by working with relatively low budgets.

  20. I don’t know anything about the project beyond what David posted, but I bet there’s some clever ways to keep the cost in a more manageable range than $80-100 mil.

    I just watched Midnight in Paris again for the second time last weekend. I enjoyed it all over again, and I agree with you Craig that the cliches are probably more a reflection of Gil than Allen’s portrayal of the time period. Watching it this second time, one could argue that Gil is just making all of it up in his head and all his midnight walks are just flights of fancy.

    Either way, it’s sort of absurd to criticize the film for that. My only real criticism is how heavy-handed Allen’s portrayal of the right-wing bourgeois parents is. You could argue that Paul is intended to portray the left-wing bourgeois as he is mocked as well, but not for his politics. It’s not a big issue, but it stands out.

    But I still really enjoyed this film.

  21. Yeah the parents are heavy-handed though they’re mostly comic relief and again they’re sort of filtered through Gil’s perceptions. I do still think it would’ve been a stronger film if McAdams had been slightly more sympathetic. If there had been a more compelling reason for him to stay with her (other than the fact she’s hot) it would’ve given his decisions more impact.

    As for American Blues, since it’s a period piece, that automatically ups the cost right there, but other than that I’m not sure where the expense comes from.

  22. It would have made it a more reasonable and believable story, because 5 minutes into the film its hard to understand why he wants to marry her. But I wonder if it would have been less popular as a result? McAdams plays into the traditional rom-com cliche of being the unsympathetic, undesirable Other that the audience wants to see ditched. If she had seemed more sympathetic and emotionally desirable, Gil would come off as more of a cad.

  23. yeah it’s a tough needle to thread and I’m not sure any solution would’ve satisfied everyone.

    Regardless, it was fun for me to see McAdams play someone so unlikable. She’s gotten a lot of career mileage out of being adorable and here she had none of that to rely on.

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