Who better to explore the mystique of a city than Woody Allen, a director who has spent much of his career professing a love for his own city, New York? His latest film, Midnight in Paris, is as much about capturing the beauty of Paris as it is about understanding why we romanticize places like it. Perhaps it's that they’re both set in Europe but it's easy to place Midnight in Paris as a companion piece to Allen's also very enjoyable Vicky Christina Barcelona, but Midnight benefits from the director's ability to explore a city on more than mere aesthetic terms and whereas Barcelona worked as an excellent infomercial for Spain, Allen's latest filmis both a wonderful open-love-letter and a keen deconstruction of a particularly North American fascination with the city of lights.
At the final showdown of 1990’s Quigley Down Under, Alan Rickman's character philosophizes that some men are born in the wrong century while others are born on the wrong continent. It's a pat little musing that a screenwriter like Gil, the protagonist of Midnight in Paris, may point to as the kind of banal work he's had to make a career out of as a Hollywood "helping hand," but the feeling of being displaced in both time and space is what drives Allen's latest neurotic stand-in for himself. A literary struggling to start his own writing career, Gil is convinced that Paris of the 1920's was the golden age of society, a nostalgia that's equal parts unfounded and annoying for his vogue fiancée (Rachel McAdams) and her conservative parents who have flown the pair out to the city.
Gil is on paper as stock a Woody Allen lead as they come, prone to many of the requisite Allenisms (alternately stammering and putting his foot in his mouth for example) but giving the lead to Owen Wilson was a canny bit of casting. Wilson's naturally lackadaisical charm undercuts much of Gil’s quirkiness but he's always been able to approach the edge of hysterics just by widening his eyes, and Wilson’s performance has enough bipolar emotional range to communicate how a guy this rich, smart and good looking could possibly be crushed under the weight of his own ennui. Granted, a relationship comedy featuring a passionate yet liberally self-loathing cosmopolitan facing romantic obstacles both personal and existential is well within Allen's safe zone and even the film's supernatural hook isn't too far a stretch considering Allen’s penchant for injecting mystical elements into his films.
The hook, in this case, being that every night at midnight Gil finds himself transported back to Paris of the 1920's to rub elbows and act star-struck around literary and artistic greats. It's equal parts magic and wish-fulfillment as Gil manages to frequently cross paths with Salvador Dali, the Fitzgeralds and Picasso as though they were all the clique at the centre of history's greatest unrecorded sitcom (I’m thinking Friends via Frasier), the rules simply being that midnight is the magic hour. Even when it dips into territory that I’m inclined to describe as Inception-y, the film isn't all that concerned as to why the streets of Paris run like a nostalgia fueled DeLorean, and it's hard to blame Gill for not wondering about the mechanics of the space-time continuum when a drunk Earnest Hemingway is challenging strangers to a boxing match.
Advertising for the film has done a clever job of hiding the real crux of the story but it really is to the film's disservice since it’s always at its best when Gil is hobnobbing through history. The slow corroding of Gil's confidence by his in-laws or his fiancee's passive-aggressive best friend during the daytime is pleasantly contrasted by drinks with Zelda Fitzgerald or discussing art with Gertrude Stein at night and because the script is so loaded with future laureates and cultural icons, it's understandable that Allen's characterizations of these historical figures is largely cursory. Presenting Hemingway as a boozer who's a touch self-serious may lack subtlety but it's a concession for the sack of the audience and it supports the wish-fulfillment nature of the story; the figures we love from history have had their personalities so blown out over time that it's hard to think of them in anything but broad strokes.
Regardless, what the performances may lack in depth they more than make up for in energy. Adrien Brody is positively unhinged in his cameo as Salvador Dali and Kathy Bates as Stein is a great anchor to the films various eccentrics. But the real show-stealer is Corey Stoll as Hemingway, who brings the right mix of frat-boy energy and melancholy to Allen's alpha-male interpretation of the writer and I’m hard pressed to think of a historical figure in a film that I so badly wanted to party with. Finally there’s Marion Cotillard as the woman Gil is willing to break the space-time continuum for and even though their relationship largely hinges on a preposterous stroke of luck (beyond, you know, time travel), Cotillard has the necessary cool and grace to be a nice romantic foil.
Much like how film has taught us that LA is destined for alien invasion and Tokyo is a hotspot for oversized monster attacks, it just makes sense that if ever there was a city with real magic in it, it would be Paris. The opening montage all across the rainy streets reminds you why a city a city so full of history yet bursting with life can be seriously described as magical. And maybe it's been the crushing impatience of waiting for something really great to come to theatres but I was rather disheartened to see a film I enjoyed this much end after a mere 90 odd minutes. It seems unfair to have such great dialogue and characters confined to such a short run-time yet the film left me feeling unfulfilled in the best way possible. The zeal for life Midnight in Paris exudes just left me wanting more, but sometimes being left a little unsatisfied is all for the best. C'est la vie.
4 out of 5