One of the interesting things about reviewing Woody Allen’s entire career in one year is seeing trends come and go, experiments tried and styles tested. But it also interesting to see what does not change. Watching Midnight in Paris this week I was reminded that, oh yeah, Woody is still mad about the 1920s, or rather nostalgia in general, and he also loves magic realism in his movies. It has been a while since either of these themes/obsessions made an appearance.
For Midnight in Paris we’re in Paris and in the present day, but not for long. Frustrated novelist Gill Pender (Owen Wilson) finds a way to travel back to the era he loves the best: the 1920s, when the city was overrun by expat Americans changing the face of modern literature, art and music. While he parties with Ernest Hemingway, the Fitzgeralds and Pablo Picasso’s mistress Adriana (Marion Cottilard) at the stroke of midnight each night, by day he drifts away from his fiancé, Inez (Rachel McAdams) in the present.
Gill learns, in a message painfully obvious from the first, that the desire to live in another time or place has less to do with the wonders of that time and more to do with an inability to accept one’s own reality. For Gill, this lesson is learned when Adriana takes him further back in time to her preferred era, the Belle Epoque. However when Gill finally finds the spark of romance with a present-day Parisian nostalgia merchant who just happens to also love Cole Porter (Léa Seydoux), he realises maybe he can find happiness without breaking the laws of physics.
Midnight in Paris was Woody Allen’s biggest box office hit since Hannah and her Sisters, and also won near universal critical acclaim as well as an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. It’s one of those rare Woody Allen movies where everything seems to come together, from the idea to the execution. Owen Wilson seems like an unlikely Woody male protagonist, but he nails it without resorting to an impersonation, while the present day cast are able to find funny moments in their admittedly stock roles of the unfaithful materialistic partner Inez, and Michael Sheen as her know-it-all former professor. The 1920s cast is more memorable, spinning a few well-worn facts about historical figures into endearing characters. It’s unlikely that Hemingway spoke as Hemingway wrote, but that’s probably how Gill imagines him, and this is a fantasy after all.
If it wasn’t for the Paris setting this could almost be the quintessential Woody Allen movie. The deeply warm cinematography (by Darius Khondji), the Cole Porter score (sort of performed by Cole Porter himself!), the constant and amusing reminder of death, the magic realism, the added plot twist (of traveling back further in time), the opening montage love letter to a city and the fascination with nostalgia are all here. Depending on how you look at it, where it falls short of something like, say, The Purple Rose of Cairo, is its upbeat ending.
Perhaps because I had seen so many elements of this film before, it didn’t strike me as a particularly original Woody Allen movie. Yet around the world, audiences loved it, so perhaps they hadn’t seen many other movies by him. Actually box office figures prove they hadn’t. I enjoyed it more on this viewing, and although it may not have the depth of his earlier films, as an escapist film about escapism, and as a Woody Allen film which does work, it’s very seductive.
Next week: To Rome With Love