Thursday, June 2, 2011

Film Review - Midnight in Paris

Thank God for Woody Allen. In the midst of an almost unbearable summer full of 3D superhero garbage and brainless sequels, he has given us his latest film Midnight in Paris only seven months after the release of his last film, You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger. The middling critical reception to You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger bewildered me – of that film, I wrote: “Allen’s characters face existential dread, find comfort in ridiculous paranormal spiritualism, destroy their relationships with one another and learn the hard way that, in terms of romantic relationships, the grass will always be greener on the other side.” Powerful stuff, but for some reason, American critics weren’t impressed. Perhaps it’s because Allen offers us, on average, one movie per year, and aside from Match Point (2005) and Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008), most of them aren’t nearly as good as his masterworks from the 1970s and 1980s.

Well, so what? A middling Woody Allen film is better than ninety-nine percent of everything else out in current release. Not that I would consider You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger a middling film in the least, mind you.

Fortunately, there’s no getting around the fact that Midnight in Paris is the funniest and most endearing movie you’ll see this year – critics and audiences alike are recognizing the film as Woody Allen’s finest work in years. Owen Wilson gives one of his best performances as Gil (the ‘Woody’ character), an American writer visiting Paris with his fiancĂ© (Rachel McAdams) and her unbearably uppity parents (Allen’s depiction of McAdams’ conservative family would seem harsh if it wasn’t so, I don’t know, spot-on).

Gil, bored with his status as a hack Hollywood screenwriter, yearns for the Paris of the 1920s, when F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway and Pablo Picasso walked the streets and tossed ideas around in cafes. And so it happens that, while Gil is walking alone through the city after midnight, Paris magically morphs into that era, and Gil quite literally hangs out with the Fitzgeralds, Hemingway and the rest of the gang. Along the way, he falls in love with Picasso’s mistress Adriana, played by Marion Cotillard, who perfectly embodies all of the beauty of Paris in any era.

The joy of this film is discovering all of this for yourself, and so I’ll refrain from saying anything else, except that Allen’s work with the Surrealists (including Adrien Brody as Salvador Dali) is brilliantly absurd. With the playful and fantastical premise, Allen is free to wrestle with large ideas in a very funny manner (not dissimilar to his work in 1985’s wonderful The Purple Rose of Cairo).

Along the way, Allen takes playful jabs at the current state of Hollywood screenwriting, Tea Party dimwits, and pseudo-intellectuals alike (Michael Sheen is perfect as that guy – you’ll know the character once you see him). This is a film that assumes you’ll catch the joke about Luis Bunuel and The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972), or the jokes about Hemingway’s speech pattern (he talks the way he writes). Allen doesn’t bother explaining them to you because he’s not interested in pandering to the lowest common denominator, and in today’s cinema of digestible fluff for the masses, that’s quite an achievement.

More importantly, it’s a wonderful movie about nostalgia, a force so strong and bittersweet that Allen has devoted an entire film to the subject. Gradually, our protagonist learns that all people feel disillusioned with their own time and place, and secretly yearn to live in the idealized past, no matter the current era. It’s Gil’s (and Allen’s) own discovery of this truth that lends Midnight in Paris its poignant insight.

For this particular Woody Allen fan who holds Annie Hall (1977), Manhattan (1979), Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989) and The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985) close to my heart, I mean it when I say that Midnight in Paris is as wonderfully poetic, sad, touching and funny as anything Woody Allen has ever made.

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