With Owen Wilson, Rachel McAdams, Marion Cotillard, Kathy Bates, Adrien Brody; 100 minutes; Rated PG-13 (for some sexual references and smoking); Written and directed by Woody Allen.
Woody Allen had a good run in the ‘70s and ‘80s and into the ‘90s as one of America’s top filmmakers. Whether you prefer the “early, funny ones” like “Sleeper” or his romantic comedies like “Annie Hall” and “Manhattan,” or his later serious comedies like “Hannah And Her Sisters” and “Crimes And Misdemeanors,” the new Woody Allen film was something to be anticipated.
As the ‘90s progressed, however, he seemed to run out of steam. He still turned out a movie every year, but they became more and more of a chore to watch. As he got too old for the “Woody Allen part” other actors would take his place. John Cusack was fine in “Bullets Over Broadway,” but the usually outstanding Kenneth Branagh was embarrassing in “Celebrity” and Will Ferrell seemed to be sleepwalking through “Melinda And Melinda.” Even as the inspiration dried up, he still churned them out, whether it was painfully unfunny movies like “Hollywood Ending” or simply filming previously abandoned scripts like “Whatever Works.”
The die-hard fans saw his shifting his films to Europe as a chance for renewal, but no matter how hard they try to turn “Match Point” or “Vicky Christina Barcelona” into comebacks for Allen, they really weren’t. So when he finally has something that hearkens back to his glory days, which his latest, MIDNIGHT IN PARIS does, the danger is in overselling it. This is mid-range Woody Allen, not a masterpiece, but after a dry spell lasting more than a decade, it is welcome in spite of its flaws.
Once again, Allen has returned to his trunk for old material, in this case part of his old standup routine which he also utilized for a short story called “A Twenties Memory” in which he imagined himself carousing with Ernest Hemingway and Gertrude Stein. Here he’s transformed it into a charming parable about the illusion of some “Golden Age” in the past preventing one from being happy in the present. Gil (a woefully miscast Owen Wilson) is a Hollywood screenwriter visiting Paris with his fiancée Inez (a woefully misused Rachel McAdams). Gil wants to try his hand at writing a novel and seeks inspiration from the Paris of the 1920s.
One evening, he finds himself on a Parisian street at midnight when an old car pulls up and its inhabitants invite him to come join the party. He is magically taken to the 1920s where he parties with F. Scott Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda, meets a tough-minded Ernest Hemingway (Corey Stoll), and Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates) agrees to critique his novel-in-progress. He also meets Adriana (Marion Cotillard), the current mistress of artist Pablo Picasso.
It’s in the name-dropping where Allen has the most fun. Adrien Brody shows up as painter Salvador Dali, introducing Gil to filmmaker Luis Buñuel (Adrien de Van). Gil suggests a plot to Buñuel for one of his surrealist films who pointedly does not get it in spite of the fact that it’s a description of one of his future movies. Gil’s unhappiness in the present plus the allure of Adriana tempts him to remain in the past, and Allen’s resolution to the dilemma is at once clever, poignant and satisfying.
The downside is the notion of Owen Wilson, playing his usual nasal and whining rube, as someone who would even know who these artistic and literary celebrities are much less be inspired by them. He never quite convinces. Allen has also made Inez and her parents spoiled and self-absorbed so that we don’t get invested in the relationship. It’s an old movie convention that ought to have been retired long ago.
Still, “Midnight In Paris” is the most fun to be had at a Woody Allen movie in a long time. If you’re a longtime fan, you’ll feel like you’ve found an old friend who has been missing for many years. If you’re new to Allen, go back and see his old films. You’ll discover why, for some people, the “Golden Age” of the movies is back when Woody Allen was Woody Allen.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books, the most recent being Jar Jar Binks Must Die… And Other Observations About Science Fiction Movies. He teaches film at Suffolk University and lives in Somerville.