Midnight in Paris is turning out to be Woody Allen’s most popular movie in decades. It’s not hard to see why. It’s engaging, surprising, and has many beautiful scenes of Paris. What’s not to like?
The opening scene of Midnight in Paris is reminiscent of Manhattan, over 30 years ago. As Manhattan opened with a montage of great images of New York, Midnight opens with similar scenes of Paris.
Owen Wilson plays Gil Pender, a role that Woody himself would have played 30 years ago. Gil is a successful Hollywood screenwriter, in the midst of writing his first novel. Gil has writer’s block and doesn’t know how to proceed with his novel. Gil travels to Paris with his fiancée Inez (Rachel McAdams) and her wealthy parents. Inez runs into Paul, an old friend, who thinks he is an expert in everything. Inez wants to spend more and more time with Paul and his wife. Gil has no use for any of them, and becomes more irritable.
One night, Gil decides to go on a late night walk through Paris, looking to clear his head and get some inspiration for his novel. He walks down a quiet street. As the clock strikes midnight, Gil suddenly finds himself transported to 1920s Paris. It’s like an episode from The Twilight Zone! He meets many literary, musical and artistic giants who lived in Paris at the time: Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Pablo Picasso, Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. Gil can’t believe his luck, and, as a writer, he is in his element. He loves being with these great figures and asks Hemingway and Stein to help him with his book. Gil returns night after night at midnight to be with his new-found friends. Among them is Adrianna (Marion Cotillard) a lovely young woman to whom Gil is attracted. At one point, Gil and Adrianna even travel back to the 1880s and see Toulouse-Lautrec and his Moulin Rouge dancers!
Gil’s late night walks confound Inez and her parents. Her father hires a private detective to follow him. As Gil becomes enamored with Adrianna and her 1920s friends, his contemporaries seem even more shallow and uninteresting.
Allen’s movie is highly imaginative. The scenes set in the 1920s and 1880s are stunning. Allen cleverly introduces famous personalities from the past. Who will turn up next? He leaves almost no one out of the 1920s artistic scene.
Eventually Gil is confronted with the decision: Do I live in the present or the past? It’s the same decision any romantic must eventually make. Do we live in the time we are given, or in another time? In the confusion of our post modern era, many want to retreat to seemingly simpler times. Others want to return to a pre-Vatican II church, or 1950’s America. Is that really possible?
My only criticism of Midnight in Paris is that Gil’s contemporary circle is made up entirely of obnoxious, self-absorbed snobs. Don’t they have any redeeming qualities? This has been a pattern in Allen’s early movies. His own whining character takes cheap shots at the others, while looking good in comparison to them.
Midnight in Paris is not up to Allen’s best movies of the 1970s and 1980s. The issues here are not as profound as the moral dilemmas in Crimes and Misdemeanors. He even dealt with a similar theme of escape into fantasy with his wonderfully funny and poignant Purple Rose of Cairo. But Midnight is certainly his best film in years, and shows that he hasn’t lost his touch. It’s intelligent, witty and sophisticated in an era of lowbrow comedies like The Hangover II.
I’m happy that Midnight in Paris is finding an audience this summer. I think Domlife readers will enjoy it very much.
Tom Condon, OP