I can’t remember the last time Woody Allen made a film as delightful as Midnight in Paris. He’s certainly done it before and it’s not one of his comedy classics like Annie Hall and Sleeper, but Midnight in Paris is undoubtedly one of Woody Allen’s best films of the past ten years. It’s the rare Allen comedy where he doesn’t insert an Allen-like neurotic character, and the script finds inventive ways to be funny and thoughtful. Johanne Debas and Darius Khondji’s cinematography is gorgeous, the film is filled with wonderful performances where you can tell that all of the actors are having a marvelous time, and Allen brings it all together with a joy rarely seen in his movies these days.
Gil (Owen Wilson) is having a miserable time in one of the most beautiful cities in the world: Paris. He’s a screenwriter who’s struggling to finish his novel, his fiancée Inez (Rachel McAdams) seems more enamored of her pretentious friend Paul (Michael Sheen) than she does of Gil, and her parents (Kurt Fuller and Mimi Kennedy) hate Gil and think he’s cheap. But none of that bothers him as much as the fact that he feels like he living in the wrong time. When he walks around the museums and gardens of Paris, he takes in the beauty, but it also provides him with nostalgia for the 1920s and all the amazing writers and artists he never met.
Despondent and a little drunk, Gil wanders the streets of Paris alone at midnight. As he passes one particular street, an old-time motorcar offers to give him a lift. He gets in and suddenly finds himself party talking up F. Scott Fitzgerald (Tom Hiddleston) and his wife Zelda (Alison Pill) while Cole Porter (Yves Heck) plays the piano. Gil slowly realizes that he’s somehow been transported back to the Paris of the 1920s and that he has the rare opportunity to talk to his literary heroes about his book. Matters become slightly more complicated when he starts to fall for Adriana (Marion Cotillard), a costume designer and a muse for giants like Ernest Hemingway (Corey Stoll) and Pablo Picasso (Marcial Di Fonzo Bo).
There’s a charming simplicity at the heart of Midnight in Paris and it comes from the question of what would you do if you could go back in time and live in a world that you thought was better than your own? Allen doesn’t try to recreate the 1920s as they actually were (this isn’t Boardwalk Empire), but rather as Gil imagines it and that everyone is larger than life. Stoll almost steals the movie with his bombastic impersonation of a young Ernest Hemingway while Adrien Brody gets amusingly strange as he plays the eccentricities of Salvador Dalí. And as for Wilson, I can’t remember the last time I saw him exuding such immeasurable joy and personality into a role, and I applaud both him and Allen for not making Gil the standard neurotic Woody Allen surrogate character.
The movie pulls the majority of its entertainment value from watching Gil have fun with his 20th century artistic heroes (the rest of it comes from Michael Sheen’s performance), but it also has a thoughtful exploration at its core about artistic creation, inspiration, and criticism. There’s a couple of simple observations like how the people who inspired us to be creative can inspire us to lead better lives through their art, and how nostalgia always makes people think an earlier time was better (Gil even remakes on the latter, “I’m having an insight! It’s a minor one…”), but the idea I found most interesting was about the relationship between the critic and the creator.
Since I’m a critic, that should come as no surprise and neither should the fact that Allen sides with the creative. It’s not that the film condemns criticism. The constructive criticism Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates) gives Gil on his manuscript is invaluable as are the life lessons he gets from all his other idols and Adriana. But the ignorant, pompous criticism of Paul is where Allen clearly takes issue. While the script veers a little too close to “Only the artist has the correct interpretation of their work,” Allen keeps it above water by letting us know that Paul is wrong not because he has an opinion on art, but because it’s an uninformed opinion that willfully ignores history and context.
Woody Allen’s comedies are always at their best when they have a thoughtful idea at the middle and the revelation of that idea isn’t too heavy-handed. He’s had some trouble with that formula in recent years, but he gets the mixture almost completely right with Midnight in Paris. Even if you don’t want to engage in the subtext, you’ll be swept up in the performances and ache to live in the artist’s dream city of Paris (although I recommend staying out of the 17th century).