I confess that the first few minutes of Midnight in Paris made me smile. However, I am prejudiced in this regard: seeing all the sights of the City of Lights brought back all the joyful memories of my trip there barely a year ago. Even though I had only a day and a half to see Paris (a half-day was spent at Versailles), I still saw so much that by the end of my time there, I too had fallen under its spell and became enchanted with the city by the Seine. Therefore, Midnight In Paris served as a bit of nostalgia for me, and it is accurate to say that since nostalgia was at the heart of Woody Allen's film.
Gil (Owen Wilson) is a Hollywood screenwriter/script doctor who years to write the Great American Novel. He finds inspiration in Paris, while his fiancee Inez (Rachel McAdams) and her parents (Kurt Fuller and Mimi Kennedy) most certainly do not. She and her family are boorish, self-centered, devoid of respect for culture, perplexed why the French don't speak English, and find Paris a wasteland: in other words, typical Republicans as imagined by Woody Allen.
Gil, however, yearns to live in Paris rather than return to Hollywood, and more than anything would have loved to have lived in 1920's Paris and be able to rub shoulders with Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and all the artists who flocked there in the inter-war era. Inez would much rather spend time with friends who happen to be in Paris at the same time, her old flame Paul (Michael Sheen) and his current flame Carol (Nina Arianda).
One night, after a bit too much to drink, Gil walks about alone in Paris. At midnight, an old-style car comes and beckons Gil to enter. Once there, he is given more champagne and taken to a party, where the piano is being played by Cole Porter (Yves Heck) and his novel is of interest to F. Scott Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda (Tom Hiddleston and Alison Pill). They take Gil to gain the insight from Ernest Hemingway (Corey Stoll) who refuses to read Gil's novel but promises to take him to Gertrude Stein and have her judge it.
However, right after leaving Hemingway Gil finds himself back in his own time. Inez of course refuses to believe Gil did anything with his literary heroes (and also makes it clear that she thinks he's wasting his time both in Paris and in pursuing his novel when he should go back to swimming pools and movie stars, making real money for them). Gil takes Inez to the same spot to show her this miracle, but of course it doesn't happen and she leaves. Once midnight rolls around, however, we take another jolly jaunt.
Back to the 1920's, where Gertrude (Kathy Bates) tells Picasso (Michael Di Fonzo Bo) that his newest painting is all wrong. The subject of this painting is there, a beautiful girl named Adriana (Marion Cotillard). She and Gil have an immediate attraction, and she tells him how she so admires the Belle Epoque era of Paris.
Soon, Gil starts bouncing back and forth between his ideal time and his real time. Gil is now torn between his growing interest in Adriana and his loyalty to Inez. Who better to discuss this romantic conundrum than with Salvador Dalí (Adrien Brody), Man Ray (Tom Cordier), and Luis Buñuel (Adrien De Van)?
Eventually, thanks to the help of a Rodin Museum tour guide (The First Lady of France, Madame Sarkozy, aka Carla Bruni), Gil realizes with whom he should be with. However, there's a hitch: just as the relationship between Gil and Adriana is blossoming, a carriage takes them to the Paris of the Moulin Rouge, where she becomes entranced with the world of Toulouse-Lautrec (Henri Menjou Cortes), Edgar Degas (Francois Rostrain) and Paul Gauguin (Olivier Rabourdin). Gil learns his lesson: the time one lives in will always appear boring to those living in it and that there is no need to romanticize the past because the present is what you make of it. The good news is that Gil finally sees what will make him truly happy in the Twenty-First Century both in terms of his career and his life.
Allen is nothing if not blatant about both what he is trying to say both personally and politically in Midnight in Paris. In short, we learn that as much as we may imagine a particular time and place as being "the ideal time" in the "I was born too late" mindset, the past is just that: the past, a time that we cannot go back to. It is one thing to fantasize about living in a certain time, but truth be told, the time we live in is where we should devote ourselves to. Even Gil's novel about a Nostalgia Shop reflects the character's belief in the power of the past, but, Allen would argue, it is a place that does not exist and perhaps never existed, not in the way we would imagine it.
We see this in its most obvious terms with the relationship between Gil and Adriana. Each has romanticized a particular era, and each has found himself visiting that era. However, their reactions and decisions to actually abandoning their own time for their "dream time" shows how Gil has grown to understand that his time is his time, and that it is there where he has to live.
This isn't to say that Midnight in Paris is not without a sense of humor. It might be amusing to see how Buñuel himself is confused by the plot Gil gives him for a movie: about a group of people who just cannot leave the room they find themselves in. I imagine more than a few people would find The Exterminating Angel confusing, so it's nice to imagine Buñuel puzzled by why they just didn't walk out through the door. It is also amusing to see the "pedantic" Paul shown up by the less-cultured Gil. (Side note: the Buñuel joke would be amusing to only those who know of The Exterminating Angel, so it might be a bit highbrow for some viewers).
However, there were certain things within Midnight In Paris that might puzzle viewers. It's clear that Inez is a hopeless shrew/harpy, so one wonders why Gil would date her, let alone be engaged to her. She clearly doesn't have anything in common with him and worse, ridicules his hopes and tastes: deriding him for loving to walk in Paris in the rain for example, so we already know from the get-go they ain't staying together.
I find this to be a certain stock character/plot device: a wife/fiancee so horrid that no intelligent man would want to be with her, let alone plan to marry her. Strange, but while I was trying to think where I had seen a similar character, I suddenly remembered Something Borrowed, where again another woman so hopelessly unsuitable for the male lead is supposed to be inches from being his wife.
McAdams' one-note performance of this ugliest of Ugly Americans doesn't help matters. She was never sympathetic or interesting, just wailing about all over the place, always whining and being dismissive of Gil while being in rapt attention for the pompous deliberations of Paul. One would think Allen would have given her at least something to do besides complain about everything, but I think in a larger sense not only was Allen relying on a tried-and-true method of film-making (make the woman ugly so as to allow our hero to romance another woman without a bit of shame) but to take a few shots at Republicans.
On two occasions Inez's parents are held to ridicule for their politics: did we really have to hear the father respond to his similarly-minded wife that Tea Party people were not "crypto-Fascist zombies". It was those moments that felt false and forced, as if Allen wanted less to have dialogue than to make a point. When that happens, it takes you out of the movie, which is ironic given the theme of nostalgia and of imagining living in the past that Midnight In Paris so deftly delves in.
The other performances were much better. It was quite interesting to hear Sheen try his hand at an American accent though I wonder if he'd kept his British tones it would have made him sound more snobbish, but I digress, and while he basically disappeared near the mid-point of Midnight he still did a good job in making Paul both pompous and believable in his cluelessness about how little he actually knew. One normally wouldn't think of Owen Wilson, with his laid-back persona, as being a Woody Allen-type: neurotic hyper-intellectual, but in Midnight In Paris, Wilson's drawl and sometimes sleepy-eyed appearance actually works with Gil's slightly bumbling nature and enthusiasm for 1920's Paris and the world of the Lost Generation.
Those who were in the 1920's world fared the best. In what is basically a cameo Brody reminded us that he does have a sense of humor by making Dalí obsessed with his own fame, and those rhinoceroses he constantly brings up. Hiddleston (one of the best parts of Thor) had a practically pitch-perfect American accent and enthusiasm mixed with a bit of innocence as Fitzgerald, and Stoll got Hemingway's machismo perfectly.
The women are not to be forgotten: Bates was delightful as that patroness of the arts Stein, offering straight talk and advice to Gil. Pill, to my hearing, had a bit too-thick Southern accent, but showed in her few scenes the emotional and mental issues that the deeply-troubled Zelda would eventually be overwhelmed by. Cotillard was the best as the generally sweet Adriana, who falls for Gil but who knows that an engaged man is not for her even though the clueless Gil apparently doesn't think any girl would be troubled by being told he's engaged to someone else. Cotillard is coy, charming, innocent, optimistic and even naive: in short, a lovely performance of a flapper trapped in a time she doesn't really care about.
Even the First Lady does well as the tour guide flustered by Paul's pomposity but who helps Gil by translating the memoirs of one Adriana he happened to pick up.
Of course, the highlights of Midnight In Paris are of the beautiful sights of the city itself: Paris, that belle ville, has been filmed many times in many movies, but Darius Khondji and Johanne Debas' cinematography make the city even more beautiful and romantic, which makes the boorish American family's disinterest in Paris even more bizarre, but I digress.
The big problem I find in Midnight In Paris is in the fact that from time to time, Allen's dialogue doesn't sound natural. Instead, it sounds as if he's giving the characters, and the audience, plot points and speeches, rather than making them sound like they are making it up as they go along, to quote a film. This happens at least twice: at the very beginning of the film at at Versailles. However, any film that shows just a glimpse of the Citizen Kane of palaces can be much forgiven.
There are also little things, such as having an accordion playing: I figure it's required that every movie set in Paris have an accordion, but on the whole Midnight In Paris is a delight from start to finish.
By no means is Midnight in Paris a laugh-a-minute feature. The laughter comes in fits: one scene involving Gil trying to leave his room while trying to keep his activities a secret from a surprise visit by his horrid fiancee and future in-laws just was not funny, but the charm of Paris and the story make up for it. In that, it is beautiful.
Mon Paris, comment je t'aime...