June 2, 2011

Midnight In Paris (06/02/2011)

Lettergrade: B+

I tend to run a little hot and cold with Woody Allen movies, to be honest with you, but I found Midnight In Paris, a fantasy in which present-day Owen Wilson steps back into a romanticized version of 1920s Paris and cavorts with famous writers and artists of the day, to be unusually charming, engaging, and most surprising of all, focused.

While Woody's movies universally have a great deal of wit and playfulness, I often find them to be a bit rambly at the same time. He tends to write and direct one film per year, and frankly they sometimes feel like he either decided to shoot his first draft without revision or he was just kind of making it up as he went. Midnight In Paris is a little different: It feels a bit more thought-out, and something about Wilson's wide-eyed enthusiasm as the Allen substitute really makes the high-brow material a bit more relatable and breezy than his last several movies have been.

Wilson's character is a burnt-out Hollywood screenwriter vacationing in Paris with his reptilian fiancé (Rachel McAdams). He's desperately trying to reinvent himself as a novelist, but is having trouble revising his first attempt into something he can sell. They're there with her ultra right-wing parents, and at breakfast one day, they discover that they're sharing their hotel with McAdams' old grad school professor (an extra slimy Michael Sheen) who considers himself an expert on every imaginable subject, and delights in demonstrating such whenever possible.

While out for a walk one night, Wilson discovers that if he happens to stand in a certain side-street... at just the right spot... exactly as the clock chimes midnight... a vintage car will appear and take him back through time to his own personal golden era. Once he arrives, he first meets Zelda Fitzgerald, before being introduced to her husband F. Scott, who then takes him over to the dark and moody Ernest Hemingway, who in turn agrees to show his novel to Gertrude Stein, who happens to live down the street with her house-guest Pablo Picasso... and so on, and so on. During the day, McAdams and her parents grow suspicious of what he's been up to, whilst he himself feels increasingly detached from the present, biding his time until he can slip out for another midnight walk. It's sort of like Allen's version of Avatar, with great artists of the Depression era substituted for the Na'vi.

Like several of Allen's earlier movies, it's the kind of thing that could easily have been a tight short story appearing in Playboy or The New Yorker had it not been made as a film instead. There's a clear thematic point that the movie gets at in a number of ways about how being in love with the nostalgia of yesterday can sometimes inhibit your appreciation of what's great about today, which is oddly moving when it begins to pay off. I'm not an Allen expert by any stretch, but I can't really remember anything quite like this from my random sampling of his films over the last 10 years or so. Although you can argue that the sentiment is a little corny, I think it's one of those instances where a familiar idea done with grace and vigor is perhaps a little stronger than one that might be more original, but also oblique and unclear.

My buddy Eric once commented that in the 90s, characters in Allen's movies started to behave less like real people and more like characters from other movies. I don't know if I see that exactly, but I do find it curious that his stories often seem to be farces about a leisure class which I'm not really sure exists anymore, if it ever did. No one seems to have a job in Allen's stories, and if they do, they're ones that you can either take lengthy vacations from or that you don't have to show up to very often, if at all. People go to art galleries, discuss philosophy and classic cinema, and sample vintage wines on the roof tops of world-famous museums at sunset.

All those things happen in Midnight In Paris, of course, but I think it's Wilson who somehow makes it all relatable to common-folk like me. If you're not a Woody Allen guy in the first place, this movie probably won't change your opinion much, but if you're usually on the fence about him (as I am), this is about as pleasurable and as accessible as he gets.

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