Review by Ryan Wilson

No one would ever accuse Woody Allen of embracing the modern. None of his characters ever do modern things like, say, talk on a cell phone, and most of his films involve music of another era, which often carries the emotions of his contemporary characters. But Allen’s new film Midnight in Paris takes the past to a whole new level.

Likable Owen Wilson plays Gil, an affable screenwriter who wants to give up the hack-work to write great literature. He fantasizes about giving up his comfortable California life to move to Paris to write. His vision of this life is mostly cobbled together from stories of great American ex-patriots who moved to Paris to write nearly a century ago. That these stories have survived so long in the collective dreaming of creative types seems to be Allen’s true subject in the film.

One night, after drinking too much wine, Gil roams the streets of Paris only to be transported back into the fabled 1920s, where he gets to meet great writers like Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Gertrude Stein, as well as painters such as Picasso and Salvador Dali. He also meets a costume designer who catches his eye.

Gil is torn between his desire to stay in the romanticized past with her or to face the challenges of the present, where he is engaged to a demanding materialist, played by Rachel McAdams, who scoffs at his artistic ambitions.

Magical Realism isn’t new to Woody Allen. He went full-blown Kafkaesque in 1991’s Shadow and Fog, and he even went a little Lewis Carroll in 1990’s Alice. Allen’s also been great at capturing a period, such as in 1987’s Radio Days and 1999’s excellent Sweet and Lowdown. But in combining both, we need to look no further than 1985’s The Purple Rose of Cairo, probably Allen’s most philosophical movie.

In that film, an abused housewife escapes her life in the Great Depression by going to the movies. She goes so often that one day the star of the movie notices her and asks her through the screen why she comes so often. The rest is a sort of madcap existential adventure, part slapstick, part term paper.

Allen is going for a similar effect in Midnight in Paris, but his energy just isn’t what it used to be. Maybe it’s Gil’s gee-golly attitude, maybe it’s the fact that the writers and painters don’t offer him much of a challenge. Hemingway growls at him a few times about boxing and being a man, but he really doesn’t take a bite out of Gil, and Gil needs it. Even when he gives his manuscript to Stein to read, her response is lukewarm praise no English major would likely believe. It’s a kick to see Gil interact with these famous figures, but they never really resonate beyond being part of his tour. Certainly Stein and Fitzgerald had stronger attitudes towards artists and perhaps wouldn’t be so welcoming toward a hack.

Allen doesn’t seem to be so concerned with literary struggles. His main focus is on nostalgia and its power to change perception, which is funny considering that even the way Allen makes his characters speak is by now a throwback to every other Woody Allen film made in the last forty years.

If you have seen one relationship in a Woody Allen film by now you have seen them all. That’s because every male is essentially Allen, working through the same issues of success, intellect, and neurosis. When Gil speaks to his fiancée, it’s nearly the same sort of communication we got way back in Annie Hall. This would be an insult if Annie Hall hadn’t been so groundbreaking concerning screen relationships.

In the end Midnight in Paris is worth a look because Allen is still very funny and very smart. He can at once take on pretentious intellectuals, always an Allen target, and the anti-intellectual, in this case a conservative Tea Party member who’s also Gil’s would-be father-in-law. The city of Paris is also something of a star in the film, in the same way that New York used to be a character in Allen’s prime. We see why Gil would want to move there, and we don’t want to go home any more than he does. 

Midnight in Paris is no Purple Rose of Cairo, but it’s not a bad place to stop and forget more modern concerns. Like the city it celebrates, its humor and thought are timeless. 

Take 5 on Film is a production of Delta College Quality Public Radio.

© Ryan Wilson, 2011