Owen Wilson travels back in time to hobnob with the creative elite in Woody Allen’s latest.
I keep giving up on Woody Allen.
Maybe a film a year just isn’t the right schedule for writer-directors. Sure, he was a formative figure in my adolescence, but these days the movies seem to come more from force of habit than any creative impulse. After you’ve sat through stuff like Scoop, Cassandra’s Dream and You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger it’s easy to write off the Wood-man. He’s 75 years old now, and it feels like he mostly makes pictures to kill time in between Knicks games.
But along comes Midnight In Paris, which is so delightful, such a pleasure to watch, and exudes the cool confidence of an auteur in (almost) complete control of the form, I’m halfway back to second-guessing myself on all those crummy late-period Allen movies, wondering if I might have missed something along the way.
Midnight is breezy and casually profound, with a killer gimmick that keeps on giving. It also solves the problem Woody has been struggling with for the past 20 years or so, in that he has never quite been able to find an age-appropriate stand-in for “The Woody Allen Role” he often writes at the center of his pictures. We’ve seen John Cusack, Kenneth Branagh and Will Ferrell all go down in flames trying to mimic the patented neurotic Woody-isms—kvetching, coughing and playing with their glasses.
The obvious answer: Owen Wilson?
With his tousled surfer-boy blond locks, bent nose and loopy line delivery, Wilson initially appeared to be the least sane choice for a Woody Allen surrogate. But anybody who has ever seen a Wes Anderson movie also knows that Wilson has a gift for barbed, passive-aggressive throwaway one-liners, and there’s an open yearning behind those sad eyes that makes him an incongruously perfect fit for one of Allen’s foolhardy, idealistic anti-heroes.
Midnight In Paris stars Wilson as Gil Pender, a hack screenwriter on the verge of marrying an avaricious Malibu chick (Rachel McAdams) until a vacation in the City Of Lights sets him off on a nostalgia bender. Many years ago, before he sold out, Gil was an aspiring lit major who dreamed of writing The Great American Novel. Once upon a time when he was young, Gil even considered living in Paris, but chickened out at the last minute and moved to Hollywood. A week’s vacation with his fiancee’s horrific Republican parents in France is enough to renew his artistic aspirations.
And then on one drunken evening, along rumbles a strange vintage Puegot limo that picks up Gil and magically transports him back to the 1920s, where he parties with Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. There’s a fellow named Hemingway who speaks in gruff monosyllabic sentences, absent adverbs, pounding booze and constantly asking Gil if he “is honest, true … and have you ever faced death?
A kissing cousin to Allen’s The Purple Rose Of Cairo, Midnight In Paris doesn’t bother to explain the magical-realist construct at its core. (Thank God.) Whenever the clock strikes 12, Gil catches a ride back to the heyday he’s always imagined, hobnobbing with fellows like “Tom” Eliot, and soliciting opinions on his unfinished novel from Gertrude Stein (a priceless Kathy Bates.) Shot in gorgeous, golden hues by the amazing cinematographer Darius Khondji, the movie is so much more carefully crafted and blocked than any Allen picture we’ve seen these past couple decades.
Funny thing about nostalgia though, it can turn into golden quicksand. The one joke—and it’s a doozy—in Midnight In Paris is that all these members of the fabled Lost Generation are openly aching for earlier, better times. Pablo Picasso really wishes he could have hung out with Toulouse Latrec during the Belle Epoque, and if you can also magically jump back that many more years—all those dudes are just going to be pining for the Renaissance.
The old days aren’t what they used to be, and they never were. Adrien Brody steals an entire set-piece as a hysterically egomaniacal Salvador Dali, and you should see the blank look on Luis Bunuel’s face when Gil pitches him the idea for The Exterminating Angel.
Sadly, it’s not all so delightful. As Wilson’s money-grubbing fiancee, Rachel McAdams gives her first bum performance as a cruel and vindictive martinet, yet another straw-lady figure in Allen’s ongoing war against women.
Still, strange to see such subversion and self-awareness coming from Woody, who often seems so helplessly locked into the past that even his contemporary movies seem like period pieces. Midnight In Paris is something of a personal reckoning, squaring off with the idea that not only are the old Radio Days over, but they probably weren’t all that hot to begin with.
It feels like an artistic breakthrough, and Allen’s revitalized direction and offhand magic make this slight and tender-hearted high-concept joke linger in the mind long after the credits roll. He’s also finally found his leading man.
I do hope Wilson is back for the inevitable Woody movie that rolls around next summer.
Director: Woody Allen
Starring: Owen Wilson, Rachel McAdams and Kathy Bates