Before this weekend I had actually seen just one Woody Allen film, Annie Hall, which I couldn’t stand, mostly because I couldn’t stand Allen’s character, which I guess means I couldn’t stand Allen himself since they seem impossible to distinguish. Since that’s regarded as one of his best films, perhaps his greatest film period, I always assumed that I wouldn’t like much of his oeuvre and used my movie-watching time on other directors. The reviews on last year’s Midnight in Paris were positive enough, especially in saying that the film was different from much of Allen’s work, that I figured I’d give it a shot, especially since I’m working through most of last year’s Best Picture nominees. I absolutely loved this movie, so my own – dare I say it? – bias against Allen nearly kept me away from a great, fun, romantic film.
Midnight‘s main setting couldn’t be much more in my wheelhouse, as it contains an homage to the 1920s within its meditation on nostalgia and our modern happiness paradox, along with a touch of magical realism that, to Allen’s great credit, is never actually explained. Owen Wilson, as likeable as I have ever seen him, plays the Allen stand-in character Gil, unhappily engaged to a narcissistic, shallow woman (played unlikeably by Rachel McAdams) who seems like she might be one of the Bluths’ first cousins, and whose mother might be Lucille Bluth’s long-lost twin sister. Gil is on a vacation to Paris with his fiancee and future in-laws, yet he wants to settle in Paris and try to become a serious novelist rather than continue as a hack screenplay writer, while his intended wants to live to Malibu and spend a lot of money on material things.
The engagement/family plot is almost worthless except as a setup for Gil’s desire to escape to another life, or, as chance would have it, another era. I was close to giving up on the movie after ten minutes before the real story emerges. (Spoilers ahead.) While wandering around Paris alone late one night, Gil is picked up by an old car full of drunken French revelers who insist that he join them and who take him to a party where he meets an American couple named Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald, only to discover after his initial skepticism that he’s been sent back in time to the 1920s. Over the course of several such nights, he encounters a number of famous writers, artists, and critics of that time, develops a crush on a French model, and, of course, reevaluates his engagement and the serious choices he’s about to make with his life and career.
These scenes in the 1920s feature a number of well-known actors and other recognizable faces having a blast playing those famous figures from the Parisian salons of that decade, a pleasure that becomes immediately infectious as Adrien Brody gets into character as Salvador Dali or Kathy Bates steals scenes as Gertrude Stein. Gil getting career advice from Ernest Hemingway or trying to mediate between Zelda and F. Scott could seem precious or sentimental in the wrong hands, but Allen makes the dialogue fit these larger-than-life characters in ways that blend our modern perceptions of them with enough realism to maintain the illusion that Gil’s trips back in time are, within the confines of the film, true to life.
Aside from Allen just having fun with famous figures from one of the west’s most fruitful artistic eras since the Renaissance, he also gradually takes the viewers into a serious meditation on the different lenses through which we view our present and the past, especially a past we only know through historical accounts. The past into which Gil travels is inevitably better than the present; perhaps they were all a figment of his imagination, but regardless, they appear as that time period does in its contemporary literature, while shielding Gil from the personal suffering that might come in his own time where he has established, meaningful relationships. Allen nearly writes himself into a corner with this gilt-edged look at the past, but his resolution, while a little quick, is also clever and uncontrived, a spoiler worth preserving at the same time.
Rachel McAdams is shrill and two-dimensional as Gil’s fiancee, and Kurt Fuller, goofily funny as the socially awkward coroner on Psych, is wasted as her snobby father. I’m not even sure who played the mother but she’s such an awful caricature it’s not even worth looking it up. The joy in this movie is in the nocturnal sequences, where Wilson shines – never quite developing the Zuckerman-esque level of annoying that Allen himself achieved for me in Annie Hall. It’s good enough that I feel like I have erred in failing to give the director a second chance sooner, so I’ll end with a question: If I didn’t like Annie Hall but loved Midnight in Paris, which Woody Allen movie should I watch next?