Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people
but as wise, making the most of the time, because
the days are evil.
Woody Allen seems to want to take us on what was once the Grand Tour of Europe, his recent films being set in London, Barcelona, and now Paris. Judging by the wondrous opening shots of the city from dawn to dusk, in sunshine and in rain, he has fallen in love with the City of Lights—and thanks to the glowing cinemaphotography of Darius Khondji, you will also. I can well imagine fans, inspired by this visual prologue, visiting all the iconic places depicted. This builds up our expectations for the rest of the film, and it is so good to report that the film lives up to them. This is the best Allen film in years, taking us back to his glory years, especially that of The Purple Rose of Cairo. Allen even gives us one minor character from Annie Hall who seems like an extended version of the guy standing in line ignorantly pontificating on Marshall Macluan.
Gil (Owen Wilson) has returned to the Paris he loved years ago when he was a struggling writer with big dreams of writing the great novel. Instead, he had gone to Hollywood and become a screenwriter knocking out films that were successful but shallow and meaningless. Gil is wise enough to realize that he has become a hack. We see what he is slow at realizing that only a radical change in his life will enable him to reach is full potential as both a writer and a human being.
On this trip Gil is accompanied by his fiancée Inez (Rachel McAdam) and her right wing Republican parents John and Helen (Kurt Fuller and Mimi Kennedy). We also see far sooner than he that Inez is not the girl for him, she disdaining his desire to abandon his lucrative career so that he can finish the novel he has been writing. He longs to move to Paris and write in a garret, as did Hemingway and other writers in the 1920s. She insists that they settle in a mansion in Malibu.
As they visit the tourist sites, they are accompanied by Paul (Michael Sheen), a professor on whom Inez had once had a crush. She is taken in by his pseudo-intellectualism: he even dares to correct their tour guide concerning some details of Rodin. Gil is so repulsed by him that he begs off most of the treks, and it is while he is half drunk and sitting alone one night that he time travels back to Paris of what he regards as the Golden Age of literature and art, the 1920s.
As a clock strikes midnight, a chauffeur-driven vintage roadster pulls up, and the jazz-age clothed passengers persuade him to join them. Gil is struck that the couple calling themselves Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald (Alison Pill and Tim Hiddleston) bear the same names as his favorite couple of the by-gone age. He is struck too at the party that the pianist singing “Let’s Fall in Love” is named Cole Porter. More surprises follow as he meets Ernest Hemingway (Corey Stoll), who in turn introduces him to the woman who reads and criticizes his manuscripts, Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates). She agrees to read Gil’s manuscript. He wanders off to get his manuscript, and, of course, finds himself back in the present where he has to deal with his mundane fiancée, future in-laws and the insufferable Paul.
Allen makes no attempt to explain the mechanisms of how the vintage sedan that whisks him back in time each midnight, this being a romantic comedy and not a science fiction story. What transpires during each visit is a delight. He meets a galaxy of artistic stars—Picasso, Salvador Dali, T.S. Elliott, Jean Cocteau, and filmmaker Luis Bunuel, among others. The one who makes the most impression on him is fashion designer and current mistress of Picasso, Adriana (Marion Cotillard), who, when he starts reading his manuscript aloud for Stein, declares aloud that she loves the opening sentence. With each new encounter, especially after she breaks up with Picasso, the two of them draw closer together, until Gil learns that she also has her idea of the Golden Age of Creativity, the Paris of the 1890s.
The humor is not as cutting as in the vintage Allen films, except perhaps for the scene in which Gil tells his in-laws what he thinks of the Tea party and former President Bush and his Iraq War. However, there are many delicious tidbits, such as when Gil, having seen in the future the films of Luis Bunuel, suggests that the filmmaker consider making a film about a group of bourgeois guests who cannot leave a party, and the perplexed Spaniard does not comprehend the premise. “Think about it,” Gil says. And the funny scene in which Gil nails Paul on his misunderstanding of a Picasso painting is as priceless as the Annie Hall scene involving the blow-hard who does not understand Marshall MacLuan.
Midnight in Paris is a funny and insightful exploration of nostalgia, illusions, vocation, and the choices we must make if we are to live up to our potential. Own Wilson makes for a wonderful, slower paced and less neurotic stand-in for Woody Allen’s persona, and thus a much more sympathetic character. Like the hero of The Purple Rose of Cairo, he must make the decision of choosing reality over fantasy and escapism—and it’s interesting to note that they have the same first name. The moral is more blatantly stated in this film, Gil himself stating it as he observes Adriana obsessed with the desire to live in the Belle Époque when her idealized artists were at the peak of their powers. This lack of subtlety has bothered some critics, but why shouldn’t Gil express his revelation as he sets out to change his life? This is his moment of “coming to himself,” much like that of the son dwelling amidst pigs in Christ’s story of the Father and Two Sons. In a secular sense, Gil is following the advice that the apostle Paul offered to the Christians at Ephesus.
Allen shares the view of fantasy writers that midnight is a magical time, but whereas as in a tale like Cinderella, the slow chiming of the hour is the end of the fairy godmother’s spell, in his tale midnight is the beginning of magic. His fantasy tale of a trip to Paris is one that should inspire all film lovers to make the trip to the nearest art house theater to see how magical a movie can be.