Thursday, May 19, 2011

Midnight in Paris

Woody Allen's beguiling and romantic fantasy Midnight in Paris, his first film set in France in a continuation of his European travels that started with the London-set 2005 feature Match Point, Owen Wilson plays an aimless writer utterly awe-struck by the beauty of the Paris streets.  That same sense of wonder and imagination possibly struck Allen as he set about putting together his richest, wittiest and tenderest film in ages.  On one end a sort of throwback to his hit-and-miss days of whimsy and invention that marked his earlier films, especially in the 1980s-- The Purple Rose of Cairo seems like the best companion film to this one.  On another hand, perhaps a more deeply personal film that Allen has presented in quite some time, as Wilson's character, Gil, a successful hack screenwriter trying to gain artistic creed with his first novel who believes he was born in the wrong era, perhaps Allen is presenting something more closer in spirit to himself than anything the enigmatic iconoclast has shown.  For Allen, an auteur whose best and most impassioned work is likely long past, was always an artist seemingly living in the past, just as his early work represented a future to be copied and replicated in romantic comedy from then on and forever.  His films, even the ones more timeless, have always seemed to be looking back, and reflecting on a bygone era either directly or subliminally.

To sublime delight Midnight in Paris is smart comedy that represents the very best of both of vintage Allen, preserving his undeniably knack for witty and offbeat dialogue and again presenting an ensemble of actors, whom either consciously or not, at least appear in on the joke, and a lovely sense of joie de vivre that permeates the spirited ninety minutes of celluloid.  Our romantic dreamer Gil, played with minimalist Allen-esque tics with superb amusement by Wilson, is vacationing in the City of Lights with his finance Inez (Rachel MacAdams) and her capitalist parents, played with aplomb by Kurt Fuller and Mimi Kennedy.  There's a few other side characters, including Paul, a woo-er of Inez's past, a "pseudo-intellectual" type played humorously by Michael Sheen.  But the fun begins one drunken evening when an old school carriage lifts Gil out of his bored little rut into a wonderland.  He's taken exactly where he feels he fits, a Golden Age-era of art and romance, mingling with the likes of Pablo Picasso, Ernest Hemingway and Gertrude Stein.

Is it a dream, or a hallucination, or a nervous's probably all and neither at the same time.  What's for sure is that for a lovely stretch of the film, the reality doesn't concern us a bit; instead we're lulled by a sense of sublime movie magic.  Gil meets a girl, a muse and flirt to various creative types, played by the always appealing Marion Cotillard, and while the role may appear a tad thin, the expressiveness of Cotillard's flirt radiates strongly with Gil's timidity and attraction.  And there it asks one of the oldest movie fantasy questions ever, either choose to live the fantasy where all may be golden and spectacular, but also artificial, or go back up the rabbit hole to the harsher, less golden real world.  This being set in Paris, lovingly filmed by Darius Khondji (Panic Room, The City of Lost Children) the choice may seem win win.  The spirit and pleasure of the film is however based in that it doesn't take itself too seriously embracing the pitter-patter of Allen's dialogue with nicely calibrated bits of French farce, that hopefully will appeal to both the most and least romantic of audiences.

The surprise, of course, and this might appear silly since it's happened many times before, but that Allen, after a few too many years of sub-par and painfully un-fulfilling films finds his groove in a movie that could have easily been made at any point in his career, and likely worked.  In recent films like Whatever Works and When You Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, it seemed like stale rehashes of works he did far better in the 1970s, and yet this one has a far more timeless appeal (there's really only one modern reference in the entire picture, when Gil and his soon to be father-in-law debate blue and red state ideals) and a gentler, less bitter take on his characters-- Wilson might be one of the more subtle talking mouthpieces for Allen-inspired neurosis to date.  There's an overall sense that by going back, and making this seemingly silly time-travel romantic travelogue, that Allen's career has come full circle.  Allen, once, and forever an emblematic staple of Manhattan, Midnight in Paris' opening montage has a brief reminder of the great one that started in one of the best films, Manhattan.  That one showcased his fair city while Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" provided the musical backdrop.  Here he showcases another great city with the same grandeur and affection.  Perhaps America's favorite old school neurotic has grown up.  B+

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