How generous is Woody Allen! The filmmaker gives us Paris, romantic street scenes in the sun, in rain, at twilight, into Parisian evenings. He doesn’t rush. He envelopes us in Paris, wraps us in the flowing shawls of her cafes, her cobblestones, her great edifices, her odd conjunctions of ancient and modern, lights on the Seine, the Paris of dreams. Allen knows quite well that his audience is full of hopeless romantics who wish that the Paris he offers was real. Absurd imaginings of fantastical and fanciful artistic life in Paris, this is his promise.
Having conditioned his audience to be in love with Paris in the springtime, the title “Midnight in Paris” flashes on the screen. As always, Woody Allen directs his own screenplay with precision and freedom, creating his best film in years. We meet Mr. Allen’s traditional alter ego, this time in the person of ...a writer. Owen Wilson is his avatar, if you will, a screenwriter who wishes to be a novelist à la F. Scott Fitzgerald (one cannot imagine him as a Hemingway), stumbling through pre-marital rites with a spoiled fiancée and her right-wing parents. Ah, to be rich in Paris in the springtime. Well, not necessarily. They weren’t having any fun.
Owen Wilson has Woody Allen down pat without merely imitating him – he has drunk Allen’s rhythms in, he inhabits the exemplary soundtrack, he is a nebbish via Hollywood, who somehow speaks in a California twangy drawl with Woody Allen’s inflections and timing. Physically, you might think Woody played the scene and said to Wilson “Do it like this,” except that Wilson has absolutely made this guy his own. All of it works.
Wilson’s Gil Pender is a successful screenwriter for some reason engaged to a mercenary little rich girl named Inez, who is brilliantly embodied by Rachel McAdams. I wouldn’t have seen McAdams in this role but she’s so on, pitch perfect with her pauses and her takes. Her disrespectful control of her father and fiancé are lazily flawless.
As McAdam’s rich Republican father, Kurt Fuller is constantly agitated in a low-key way, his dark circled eyes always sad even when he’s excited. The man never learned to live and would prefer the world suffered as he does. Fuller is fantastic. His equally mean-spirited wife, whose disdain for future son-in-law Gil she doesn’t even attempt to hide, is acerbically well played by Mimi Kennedy. You just know McAdam’s Inez is going to grow up to be her mother, sharing their rolling eyes and manner of manipulating their men.
Inez’s pedantic friend Paul is smarmily played by Michael Sheen, his eager and adoring wife by Nina Arianda. The threesome of Carol, Paul, and Inez is so antithetical to Gil that he can barely breathe when they’re onscreen together. He’s not allowed.
There is an escape. It is not explained. It needs no explanation any more than Jeff Daniels stepping off the screen in “The Purple Rose of Cairo” needed an explanation. Explanations are for science fiction; “Midnight in Paris” dips and tangos into fantasy. Walking the streets of Paris in the night, a little drunk, a little lost, as a church bell tolls midnight, Gil is picked up by the most beautiful cab you ever saw, a 1920 Peugeot Landaulet. It is yellow, it is shiny, it is driven by an impeccable chauffeur, and exquisitely dressed drunken people happily drag Gil in to their cab, their lives, and their decade.
Paris in the Twenties. What American who writes anything and doubtless majored in literature doesn’t dream of stepping into a shiny Parisian night in the 1920s. Gil meets Scott and Zelda – yes, that Scott and Zelda -- who introduce him to just everyone. Tom Hiddleston steps up, charming, loving, embodying a dreamy, untroubled version of F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Alison Pill’s little round face is so petulantly Zelda, she’s marvelous. With Cole Porter at the piano, these partying people don’t sound like they’re drunk, they are all still clever and witty and look swell. Then there’s Hemingway, quietly hilarious as played by Corey Stoll, who brings Gil along to meet Gertrude Stein, utterly believably played by Kathy Bates. These two icons of Paris in the Twenties become Gil’s friends and literary mentors. Quite a dream world.
We come upon Ms. Stein critiquing a painting by Picasso to Picasso, claiming it does not in fact capture this lovely woman leaning in the doorway -- Adriana as embodied by Marion Cotillard. She is perfection, with shapely legs below her flapper dress, her soft face and the most amazing eyes. They’re not more beautiful than anyone else’s eyes, but they are dark and stormy, starry, reflective of her every feeling and thought, from curiosity to hurt to disappointment to determination. Unlike many films in which all the men are stumbling over each other for some charisma free mannequin , it is perfectly clear why Cotillard’s Adriana draws all eyes, downright sensible that everyone wishes to hear her speak or watch her listen as he speaks. She is the muse of great painters of the time, and perhaps, just perhaps, she might be Gil’s. Paris in the Twenties is her time, the fantasy of Gil. Her idea of the perfect Paris, though, is the Belle Epoque. The fantasy dances on.
In the present in daylight, Léa Seydoux as Gabrielle sells memorabilia in an open-air market, rather like the protagonist of Gil’s novel-in-progress, who runs a “nostalgia shop.” Their chats about Cole Porter show her to be much more compatible with Gil than Inez. Carla Bruni is equally charming as a museum tour guide who recognizes Paul’s pedantry, which earns a guffaw from the audience. This is Paris, and possibilities abound.
All of the casting is unerring, Mr. Allen’s direction so true, that everyone might be ad-libbing, but we all know they’re not. This is a symphony, and everyone is sounding the right notes at the right time and achieving Mr. Allen’s goals. This is not another treatise on death and misery. “Midnight in Paris” is a celebration, a diversion into another time that seems golden only in hindsight.
Note: While not a chick flick, this isn’t your typical guy’s summer movie either. There are no car chases, although there is one very classy classic car. There are no gunfights, although war and shooting things are discussed in passing. There’s lots of drinking but no sex, the beautiful women are smartly dressed, and nobody but nobody in this film is in a hurry. So if you need quick cuts, fast cars, semi-naked bimbettes, loud noises and ignorant characters, this movie is not for you. If, however, you might enjoy a romantic evening’s entertainment with charming and amusing characters, beautiful scenery, chilly air conditioning and, as we have come to expect in a Woody Allen film, a superb soundtrack, stroll on over -- through a light rain -- to your local cinema and revive in Woody Allen’s Paris.
~ Molly Matera, signing off for cocktails on the back patio and some cleverly mellow Cole Porter.