It is no secret that the last decade has not been kind to the great filmmaker, Woody Allen. Whether is it a loss of touch or focus, one could argue that Allen hasn’t made a particularly good film since 1989’s “Crimes and Misdemeanors” — while he has had minor successes in the past decade, there is no question that he has been a shadow of his former self. The bigger problem may be that over the past twenty years, a filmmaker as aged as Allen may have put out six or seven films, but the prolific director has released 22 since 1990. In my monthly preview of upcoming movies, however, I misjudged Midnight in Paris, giving it a predicted C+ akin to my grade of last year’s release of “You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger.” His latest proves to be much better than I anticipated, coming as close to classic Woody since, well, classic Woody.
As the title suggests, the film takes place in an idyllic Paris, where a successful but unhappy screenwriter, Gil (Owen Wilson), and his fiancée, Inez (Rachel McAdams), are on vacation with her parents. As Gil begins to idealize the beautiful city for its culture and history, he literally spends his nights in the 1920s, among his artistic idols — and certainly the idols of Woody Allen — only to return to the present in the morning with different insights on his own life and work. The backdrop of Paris throughout the film is made with the same reverence we see Allen have for New York in his best films. The city looks beautiful enough to understand why Gil literally gets lost within it.
With the mystical elements of its plot, Midnight in Paris will remind most of “The Purple Rose of Cairo,” and like that film it is nostalgic and playful. It doesn’t quite have the emotional depth of early Woody, but the film is delightful enough for this not to matter. And like any other Allen movie, there is pining and contemplation of love, but there don’t seem to be real chemistry between the characters. Gil is a likable character (in ways, much more likable than when Woody plays his male protagonists), but without the heart at the center of the story, I found myself less interested in his personal journey than I did with the magic of the story. It would be a joy to visit the alternative reality world that Allen creates, but the scenes that take place in the “present” don’t quite have the same vibrance. At a certain point, these scenes simply felt like filler.
Midnight in Paris, however, is sure to go down as one of the best acted films of the year. Owen Wilson is a surprising stand-in for Allen, as he doesn’t try to do a specific impersonation, but understands the physicality and cadence for the words. Michael Sheen gives a spot-on performance as the foil to Wilson while McAdams isn’t afraid to be emotionally unattractive. The stable of 1920s characters are really the bread-and-butter of the picture, though, and the look and attitudes of these characters feel quite spot-on. Particularly memorable are Corey Stoll as a boisterous Ernest Hemingway and a wacky Adrien Brody as Salvadore Dali. Knowing a little about the work and lives of many of the artists may be good to catch the jokes, but I imagine these performances would be fun to watch without any previous knowledge.
It’s absolutely wonderful to see Woody Allen trying something new and having fun with his films again. Midnight in Paris should be an entertaining for any viewer, but if you aren’t generally a fan of Allen’s dialogue you will probably have the same problems with this movie as with his others. Although it may not live up to the very best of his work, there is no question that the film is a step in the right direction for the prolific director. Now we just wait until next year to see if he keeps it going!