Thursday, June 2, 2011


(Almost sounds kinda dirty, don't it?)

Midnight in Paris is wonderful.  I could use that word a lot and I have before, but it would take more words out of the dictionary than would be prudent to try and come up with something that works just as well as that.  Woody Allen, a director who for most of his career has toyed around with the line between reality and fantasy, how we see it in cinema and literature and theater and in ourselves and what we do day to day, has made one of his most memorable comedies by not futzing around with it anymore and just diving in: taking a character from present day and putting him back in time to Paris in the 1920's.  There he meets em all, and to which I'll give a brief list in a moment, and it changes his perspective on life as a whole.

This isn't entirely random: the character, Gil, played by Owen Wilson, is already in Paris with his fiance (Rachel McAdams), is a hack screenwriter who can't seem to get past what to do with his novel, who to show it to, how to change it if needed, and he's stuck in the past (indeed his book is set in a 'Nostalgia Shop' filled with nick-nacks and other memorabilia - in other words, he's a geek, but for fine culture and literature).

As he walks the streets without any inspiration one night in Paris a car from waay back in the way (or, if you prefer, a 'Way-Back Machine') drives up and a few friendly gentlemen and ladies ask Gil to come on in.  Then off and away he is to sometime in the 1920's in Paris, though the joke (at first) is that he's too stunned to process it.  F. Scott Fitzgerald, no way!  And Zelda Fitzgerald too! HEMINGWAY!  He announces himself as fucking HEMINGWAY!  And he's as (hilariously) douchey as you might expect!

Needless to say this is one of those time-travel movies where the mechanics off the 'how' Gil gets back in time isn't entirely important, however for those interested Allen makes it so that other people *in* this 1920's Paris, like Marion Cotillard's Adrianna, can also go back in time if they start feeling nostalgic (there's even one joke near the end, a howl-inducing kind of joke, that has the time travel angle done for a nothing side character).  Nor is it at all bewildering, if one takes that extra leap of disbelief step, as to why it's only after midnight and that time seems to speed up ahead to another time when Gil comes back.  If someone else were to get in the car and go to the same time Gil is there would shit get disrupted?  Eh, whatever. 

What makes it entertaining and charming and a lot of fun is seeing the interactions Gil has with these historical figures, especially Hemingway who comes off like the big brusque brute he was (or rather that HE was the greatest writer since you either write great or you write lousy, and that he hated other writers because he saw them immediately as competitors), and then later the likes of the 'surrealists' like Bunuel, Man-Ray and Dali (also a one-name man), played by Adrien Brody as a classic nut.

But how do the other people back in 'reality' take it?  Needless to say Inez (McAdams) finds her would-be fiance to possibly have a brain tumor, and her parents like him less - some great political comedy in there, by the way - and Gil's main conflict is whether he should stick with the fantasy, of the car coming by same time every night as the bell tolls (and it seems to only come for those who want it, for Inez it just doesn't come when he tries to bring her along), or back in the reality where he has crap intellectual competition like Paul (hilariously deadpan Michael Sheen) or just a whole career of hack screenwriting.  Who needs that when you got Gertrude Stein reading and analyzing your novel?  And who needs the Paris of today when you got the Paris of old, swinging jazz, and gobsmackingly beautiful people like Marion Cotillard?  And Picasso!!

You're waiting for a train, you don't know how you... wait, wrong dream, sorry :)

Allen has a light but firm touch with this kind of material, and like Match Point he seems to find some fertile ground in a new location; more than that film, here he genuinely loves the city - to the point of opening his film with a montage of images to sweet melody ala Manhattan only not quite as iconic - and his protagonist is taken so fully with it that it's like a delightful infectious disease.  For fans of his 1985 classic The Purple Rose of Cairo there will also be recognition of the theme of escapism, but here he takes it a step further.  When people are faced with such a choice between a world that has firm lines and the horrors of the day (pollution, war, terrorism, the Tea Party), why not stay back in time?  Or, if not that, how about bringing a fresh perspective?

One other note on this film, which has perfect pace and just the right bright and dark cinematography whenever needed by Darius Khondji - Owen Wilson, the star here, makes for one of Allen's most amiable and spot on "Woody" versions.  Maybe it is a kind of version of him, I don't know, though it's hard not to see the director playing the part some thirty, thirty-five years ago.  And for the first time in I can't remember when,Wilson delivers a genuinely funny performance, albeit with many wide-eyed reaction shots at what he sees around him, but also with some real-deal comic timing.  There's a scene where he has a problem with a pair of earrings he's trying to snoop away from one place to another, and how he resolves it is just impecable.  He, like the film, made me smile ear to ear when I wasn't chuckling with laughter, even at the stuff only I would probably find funny out of anyone in the theater (three words: The Exterminating Angel, nuff said).

No, please Woody, save me from doing Marmaduke 2!

So go, see Paris through the eyes and comic heart of Woody Allen, with lots of beauty and spot-on historical references.  It's the most fun I've had at the movies since Rango, and luckily a great one too.

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