Midnight in Paris
An American in ‘Paris’: Owen Wilson is transported to the City of Lights — past and present
"Midnight in Paris,’’ Woody Allen’s 41st feature film, is a sweet-natured trifle, as flavorful and as thin as a crepe. It stars Owen Wilson as Gil Pender, a hack Hollywood screenwriter and struggling novelist who takes a series of late-night walks while visiting Paris and finds himself transported back to the expatriate era of the 1920s. There Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates) holds court for such buzzing luminosities as Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald (Tim Hiddleston and Alison Pill), Ernest Hemingway (Corey Stoll), Cole Porter, Josephine Baker, and so forth.
It’s a delicious conceit, and Allen milks the absurdity. Gil plops down at a cafe, and at the next table are Dali (Adrien Brody), Buñuel (Adrien de Van), and Man Ray (Tom Cordier). A cab door opens and there’s T.S. Eliot fresh from “The Waste Land.’’ In the rues the women come and go, talking of Pablo Picasso (Marcial Di Fonzo Bo).
That they’re all caricatures, as cartoony as a great-author drawing on a PBS book-bag, doesn’t really matter. Stoll’s Hemingway is a terrific creation: a ripe, macho, adverb-free punch line of a young Papa. Gil’s a caricature, too — the hand-wringing Allen neurotic we’re so familiar with — and so are the people in his modern-day life: his shrill fiancée, Inez (Rachel McAdams), her horrid parents (Kurt Fuller and Mimi Kennedy), a pseudo-intellectual prat (Michael Sheen) with one eye on the Louvre and the other on Inez’s legs.
Anyway, caricature is all Allen has offered us for many years now, and his movies are best when they’re up front about it. “Midnight in Paris’’ has the brisk, gimmicky half-life of one of Woody’s New Yorker sketches. Next to calamities like last year’s “You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger’’ and 2009’s “Whatever Works,’’ this has to count as an improvement.
There’s evidence that Allen wants to go deeper, though. For one thing, this is the rare movie to take Wilson’s disconsolate side seriously — the knowledge that being a bland, blond Hollywood stud isn’t all it’s cracked up to be — and the actor responds with a performance that’s sadder and more soulful than what’s on the page. More to the point, Woody hangs his own need for nostalgia out to dry, or he pretends to.
The movie asks us to ask ourselves which historical era each of us would live in if magic allowed for it, knowing we’re never happy where we are. Gil longs for the Paris of 85 years ago, while Adriana (Marion Cotillard), the rueful party girl he meets during his Jazz Age wanderings, pines for the Folies and La Belle Epoque. In its final act, “Midnight in Paris’’ goes through the looking-glass more than once, impishly suggesting a long, intertwined series of perfect pasts and imperfect presents.
What’s so wrong with what we’ve got? It’s a real question, and Allen makes a show of answering it. Yet the modern sequences are the weakest, most obvious moments in “Midnight in Paris,’’ with their cliched tourist’s shots of famous landmarks and McAdams betrayed by the strikingly cruel shallowness of her part. Inez isn’t a real person, she’s the director’s fear and loathing of American vulgarity (and vulgar American women), and the way the movie pushes forward Cotillard and Léa Seydoux, even French first lady Carla Bruni (playing a museum guide) as possible replacements — they’re pliant, oh so French, open to walks in the rain — isn’t an examination of upscale male fantasy but a capitulation to it.
Well, as this director knows, the heart wants what the heart wants — I think he was talking about his heart — even at the expense of genuine reflection and honest filmmaking. “Midnight in Paris’’ has a crush on the past and it makes that crush palpable and great fun, with a famous dead artist in every patisserie and Django-esque guitar riffs goosing the story along. At the same time, this is “Zelig’’ without a spine, a work that wallows in the nostalgia it professes to puncture. For better and for worse, it’s as if Allen’s celebrated title sequence — that zippy 1920s jazz, that damned Windsor Light Condensed font — has finally taken over one of his movies.