'Midnight in Paris': A Woody Miracle
Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
"I was in Europe many years ago with Ernest Hemingway. Hemingway had just written his first novel, and Gertrude Stein and I read it, and we said that it was a good novel, but not a great one, and that it needed some work but it could be a fine book. And we laughed over it. Hemingway punched me in the mouth." That's from a Woody Allen stand-up comedy routine dating back almost a half-century ago. Now the prolific filmmaker and only sometime performer these days has put his Lost Generation fantasy, or rather a version of it, into a film, "Midnight in Paris." It stars Owen Wilson as Gil, a kind of younger-Allen proxy who, enchanted by contemporary Paris on a trip there with his superficial, materialistic fiancée, goes even deeper into the City of Lights by traveling back in time to the '20s there. It's a milieu he's always dreamed of living in, full of artists of all nationalities and forms and inclinations seeking illumination, inspiration and high times.
Rather surprisingly, given the consistently wan, if not outright rote, quality of much of his recent cinematic output, "Midnight" is an absolutely terrific film, fleet and brisk and as charming as it wants to be. The jokes are largely solid and sometimes inspired -- I counted only one really dated groaner, a play on a line from "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock." If the characterizations are on the rote side of the Allen scale, e.g. Gil's aforementioned superficial, materialistic and easily-dazzled-by-the-wrong-thing fiancée and her uptight conservative parents, the actors in those roles -- Rachel McAdams and Kurt Fuller and Mimi Kennedy, respectively -- do their level best to imbue them with some genuine life, and they get there.
Wilson is the real gem here. His character is a more wide-eyed and benevolent version of the standard Allen malcontent; a successful Hollywood screenwriter, he still believes in that by now anachronistic dream of writing the, or a, Great American Novel, and the pure innocence of that desire puts his wisecracking sometimes-cynicism in the back seat, as it were. With his slightly staggered gait and his habit of seeming, even at his height, to be looking up at everything, Wilson is wonderful at conveying the slightly addled sense of awe that consorting with the real-life Jazz Age inhabitants of Paris (the crew here includes Hemingway, who, as written by Allen and acted by Corey Stoll, is entirely riotous, and a perfect Gertrude Stein from Kathy Bates) would bring to a present-day lost soul who idolizes that era's figures. The conceit by which Gil effects his time travel is the source of the film's title, and as in Allen's "The Purple Rose of Cairo," we don't get anything in the way of a "probable" explanation for it. And that's fine. This is a fable, and it does have a lesson -- maybe a surprising one, coming from Allen -- about both the impossibility and actual undesirability of living in the past, no matter how seductive it seems.
I don't want to give too much away here. This is a movie of tens of little small surprises, and dialogue such as "So far I see nothing strange ..." "Sure, but you're surrealists!" only really sings in its proper context. The swipe of a joke from, of all sources, "Back to the Future" is particularly and appropriately hilarious and irrational. And the movie looks great. While Robert Altman shot Paris as the city of dog poop for his curdled "Ready to Wear" back in the day, Allen and cinematographer Darius Khondji ("Stealing Beauty," "Seven," "My Blueberry Nights") give us a Paris that's not quite as shiny as that of "Amelie" but looks scrubbed pretty clean nevertheless: the way Paris looks sometimes when recollected by those who love it, as it happens.
Also noteworthy are the framings, the pacing of the shots, the cutting in some scenes and the dissolves in others. It all adds up. Allen seems to have put a lot more care and thought into his visuals here than he did in his most recent prior film, "You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger," which seemed to just lurch from one scene to the next. This picture, a mere 94 minutes, has a real flow. It's the work of a director not just fully engaged by his material, but actually transported by it himself. It's not only a top Allen picture, but it's one worthy of his comic cinema forebears Ernst Lubitsch and Rene Clair. As I sometimes like to say, never count an auteur out.
Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.