Midnight in Paris

Reviewer: Jeffrey M Anderson
Rating (out of five): ****

Of the 40 or so movies Woody Allen has directed, about a half-dozen of them are masterpieces. A whole bunch more are really, really good, and then there are a few duds. Occasionally, though, he knows how to make a movie that can just make you smile. Radio Days (1987) did that, and so did Everyone Says I Love You (1996). And now Midnight in Paris does it. This new movie proves that Allen has moved past the bitter, angry section of his career and moved into what I call the "peaceful resignation" phase. Yasujiro Ozu made the same discovery: that one can find a certain comfort in the realization that some things never change.

Owen Wilson stars as Gil, the typical Allen writer character; this time he's a Hollywood screenwriter, highly paid but having written nothing of substance. Now he's at work on his novel, about a man that works in a nostalgia shop. He has just arrived in Paris with his beautiful fiancée, Inez (Rachel McAdams), and he has begun to see the differences in their outlooks. He loves the city, and wants to explore it in an organic way. He doesn't even mind the rain; he thinks it makes the city look more beautiful. Inez, on the other hand, is more interested in shopping for the wedding and for their future home.

Unfortunately for Gil, he and Inez run into the insufferable Paul (Michael Sheen), an annoying know-it-all that insists on giving guided tours. One night, unable to stand it any longer, he goes for a walk by himself. He is invited into a classic car and finds himself meeting and spending time with the likes of F. Scott Fitzgerald (Tom Hiddleston), Zelda Fitzgerald (Alison Pill), Ernest Hemingway (Corey Stoll), Salvador Dali (Adrien Brody), Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates). Even filmmaker Luis Bunuel (Adrien de Van) is here; in one of the movie's funniest scenes, Gil gives him a suggestion for a future film. Most importantly, Gil meets the beautiful Adriana (Marion Cotillard), who is Picasso's sometime girlfriend, but finds herself drawn to the strange Gil.

Has Gil been transported back to Paris in the 1920s, the Jazz Age, where writers, painters, and poets thrived? The movie does not provide a science fiction explanation for Gil's midnight wanderings, much like Allen's The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985), and frankly, it doesn't matter. Allen was fond of writing humorous fantasy stories like this one for the New Yorker back in the 1970s, and I kept wondering if this was based on one of those old tales. Either way, Midnight in Paris feels totally fresh, not recycled like Shadows and Fog (1992), which was in fact based on one of his old stories. Allen is a big one for nostalgia -- just check out his musical selections for any one of his films -- but in this film Gil learns a surprising and wonderful lesson.

Allen has increasingly relied on others to play the "Woody Allen" character; the last time he actually appeared in a film was in Scoop (2006). Wilson is a perfect Allen stand-in. He's one of the rare actors today that can bring his own personality to a role, revitalizing and reinterpreting all his dialogue with his peculiar, laid-back drawl. He softens the neurotic center of the character and makes him appealing. McAdams gets a somewhat thankless role here, but I have to admire the way that Allen lovingly photographs her; she has a voluptuous shape, and not a skinny stick figure, and the movie luxuriates in her beauty. It's too bad she has to play the harpy and that the thin Cotillard is the love interest.

Above all, Allen manages to capture something warm and wonderful about the love of a city, similar to the feeling he captured about New York in his early films Annie Hall and Manhattan. He's relaxed and funny and at the top of his game. And if you're in the mood to smile, you could do worse.

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