Midnight in Paris

06/02/2011

How many films have attempted to capture that form of wish-fulfillment that one most desires at the end of reading a good book, to either experience firsthand the featured adventure or to be a part of its creation? Movies go there all the time (in fact, one could say that that’s what movies are, but that’s a discussion for another time), the most recent and obvious – though by no means most successful, unless we’re talking financially – examples I can think of being the Night at the Museum franchise. As a matter of fact, that’s not a bad example at all. For all their lowbrow slapstick and complete lack of any substance whatsoever, those movies hit upon something that I think is downright exciting. Imagine being set loose in a museum, with all the great figures of history available for any discussion you could ever want to have, except not drawn by hack writers as broad comedic caricatures accessible to seven year olds who know nothing about history. Such a film could capitalize on that innate desire we all have to escape the ho hum present with all its waiting, uncertainty, and wasted potential and find those few moments of thought and creation that seemed to grab hold of the essence of life; to escape mortality for a brief second by mixing words with those whose words have become immortal. I feel almost guilty admitting I’ve passed many a long car ride in these hypothetical discussions. It’s a presumptuous, almost narcissistic concept, so leave it to Woody Allen to make the film that captures it most accurately. Midnight in Paris is a delightful movie that claims to be about embracing the present, but does a much better job of fantasizing about the past.

Owen Wilson plays Gil. Actually, Owen Wilson kind of plays Woody Allen playing Gil. From pretty much the first scene, Wilson is thrusting his hands in his pockets and throwing his shoulders back in understated, neurotic frustration at “pseudo-intellectuals” and making inappropriate comments about Tea Party politics to his super conservative future father-in-law. Fortunately for everyone, there isn’t a better surrogate than Owen Wilson, whose on-screen personage falls somewhere between Jack Lemmon’s and Jimmy Stewart’s for pure charm. A successful but unhappy sellout screenwriter, Gil is in Paris with his fiance, Inez (Rachel McAdams) and her parents (Kurt Fuller and Mimi Kennedy). Gil is enraptured by the city he once hoped to live in before he found success in Hollywood, particularly as it was in the golden 1920’s. While his conservative future family shops and acts like any typical American tourist would treat Paris in Woody Allen’s mind, Gil scours the city for remnants of a bygone, one might even say superior, era. Soon he finds himself drunkenly walking the streets of Paris alone late at night, and as the clock strikes midnight, he is ushered into a passing antique car, taken to a bizarre club with flappers and live Cole Porter music (in the most literal sense), and introduced to Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald (Alison Pill and Tom Hiddleston). Yes, those Fitzgeralds, he discovers. Next thing ya know, he’s meeting Ernest Hemmingway (Corey Stoll) and arranging to have his unfinished novel read by Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates). Soon Gil is living two different lives, a contemporary Parisian tourist by day and a member of the Jazz age intellectual elite by night.

And that’s the extent of the fantasy, comprised of two wonderfully absurd and unexplained premises; first that there exists in a corner of Paris a portal to the great minds of the 20’s, and second, that they would all be absolutely taken with Woody Allen (whoops, I’m sorry… Gil) if he walked among them. I’ll give Allen credit for knowing exactly how to handle both of these, refusing to explain either and calling attention to both as much as is funny but no more than is necessary. Hemmingway asks Gil if he hunts, to which Gil responds, “Only for bargains,” to the delight of the wittiest, most sophisticated minds of the twentieth century. The movie doesn’t exactly make a point of these types of jokes, but one certainly gets the sense that the fantasy world is just and only that; a fantasy Allen probably had while driving the streets of Paris one afternoon, especially when Gil enters into a love triangle over the beautiful Adrianna (Marion Cotillard) with Picasso and Hemmingway. In that same vein, all of the characters are drawn (not one-dimensionally or broadly as in the aforementioned Night at the Museum piles) but with the sense that we are not watching the actual historical figures, but detailed pictures of the characters drawn in the mind of someone who has seen, read, or listened to their work, and then based on that imagined what they must be like; especially Hemmingway who at one point hits on a woman by asking her if she’s “ever shot a charging lion?” One could possibly argue for the sake of further meta-commentary that the characters are creations of Gil’s mind, but I don’t think Allen intended for us to think that hard about that part of the film, and the final scene goes out of its way to disprove that altogether.

As Gil becomes more entranced and involved in the twenties, the irony of these worlds begins to catch up with him and create conflict. I think. Actually, I was still kind of enraptured by all of it. Allen finds a way to make even the dysfunctional Fitzgeralds seem like a beautiful relational ideal. Even the cast members seem to have been chosen for how well their faces brighten the screen, making everything seem just a bit more ideal and the amazing just a bit more possible than real life would seem to dictate. Paris at night, Paris in the rain, Paris in the 1920’s: this is a love story for a city, no less profound than Allen’s own 1979 classic Manhattan; also, I would argue, no less quality. That’s right. I just said Midnight in Paris is as good as Manhattan, and I’m one of those people who actually likes Manhattan. A lot. The way it tells its simple fairy tale and fills it with everything Allen’s best work brings to the table – his trademark wit, ideological candor, and contagious optimism – creates one of the great cinematic reflections on nostalgia (and there are a lot of great cinematic reflections on nostalgia).

At the end, the movie comes around to a more practical view; that we all to some extent idealize the past, but we must live in the present and make the most of our specific time and its opportunities and challenges. But it only does this begrudgingly. Allen’s screenplay, which opens with nearly five minutes of fetishist shots of Paris in the rain, cannot muster more than one small monologue in support of this claim. The rest of that time is spent painting a lavishly idealized picture of a bygone era so alluring that I would pack up my things and move there in a second if given the opportunity. Such is the dichotomy of all the best fairy-tales. The better the world created by the author, the more honest and the more interesting, the less satisfied the reader will be with his or her own reality near the end. Maybe that’s the point. Maybe the real idea is that our society needs more Fitzgeralds, Bunuels, Hemmingways, and Kathy Bates, and its our job not to soak ourselves in “pedantic” pseudo-intellectualism or comfortable commercialism, but to live as though this is a golden age, learn to appreciate walks in the rain, and treat every street corner like its own work of art. Maybe that’s a distant, impractical ideal, but such is the cinema of Allen, and this might be the most disarming film of his that I’ve ever seen, as well as an early competitor for the best of 2011.

A

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