Midnight in Paris (Sony Pictures Classics, PG-13)

The most important about Midnight in Paris is this: for the first time in years Woody Allen has produced a comedy you don’t have to apologize for or damn with faint prize.

 

 

 

It’s charming, thoroughly enjoyable and works on its own terms. It’s also entirely forgettable in a way that his great pictures never were, but it’s best to put such thoughts out of your head and just enjoy Midnight in Paris for the delightful trifle it is.

The key to Midnight in Paris is obvious from the opening frames: it’s a fantasy. This means that elements which would be annoying in a film which purports to naturalism—cardboard thin characters, a scrubbed-clean and improbably white Paris, on-the-nose dialogue, blatant wish fulfillment—make perfect sense within the world of the film. We see the world as aspiring novelist and Woody Allen stand-in Gil Pender (Owen Wilson) sees it and he’s a bit of a naïf who never let go of his junior high school self. Gil still believes in magic and Golden Ages and idolizes the writers and artists of the Lost Generation the way some boys worship Kobe Bryant and Peyton Manning. You have the feeling that, if his bitchy fiancé Inez (Rachel McAdams) would tolerate it, he’d plaster their bedroom with posters of Hemingway and Fitzgerald and Gertrude Stein.

Don’t bother worrying about how Gil and Inez ever got together: their relationship is patently unbelievable from the start, as is the standard of living he has supposedly achieved at a young age from screenwriting. Inez, like her monstrous parents (Kurt Fuller and Nina Arianda), are merely obstacles set up to be pushed aside as we follow Gil on his journey to become himself. Characters in Midnight in Paris, other than Gil himself, have a single defining characteristic which actually gives the actors room to have a little fun with their roles. Has there even been an academic more full of himself than Paul (Michael Sheen), a museum guide more poised than the unnamed character portrayed by Carla Bruni (yes, Nicholas Sarkozy’s wife), a shop girl more luminous than Gabrielle (Léa Seydoux)? Not in real life, surely, but as supporting players in a story that’s all about Gil, they function very effectively.

The real fantasy element in Midnight in Paris is the time travel which is boldly presented as fact. Gil and Inez have accompanied her parents to Paris and the trip is proving to highlight their differences in a most uncomfortable way. She’s all about shopping for €18,000 chairs while he wants to take midnight strolls in the rain. In fact, he likes Paris so much he wants to stay there, a thought she dismisses out of hand. One evening around midnight, disgusted with the way his life seems to be heading, he leaves her to walk home alone. Sitting down for a moment to collect his thoughts, Gil sees an antique car drive up. He hops in and is taken to a party where everyone is decked out in tuxes and flapper dresses and the first people he meets are Zelda (Alison Pill) and F. Scott Fitzgerald (Tom Hiddleston). Cole Porter is playing the piano and singing "Let’s Fall in Love" and before the final credits roll Gil will have met just about everyone mentioned in the "Paris in the 1920s" unit of his 8th-grade English class, including Ernest Hemingway (Corey Stoll), Salvador Dali (Adrien Brody), and Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates). They all look like the classic pictures in his textbook and speak in self-identifying quotations, which is to say they’re just as he imagined them when he first fell in love with the period.

More importantly, they all love him and his work, a response quite different from the scorn and disapproval he receives in his own, 21st century, world. Gil thinks he’s found the true Golden Age and he’d like to stay there, not just in Paris but in the Paris of the 1920s. But for once the obnoxious Paul gets it right: the Golden Age is a myth which imagines that some time in the past, not experienced by the person doing the imagining, was perfect in a way that real life never is. Or as someone put it more colloquially, the good old days never were.

That sounds like a downer but really it’s more a reaffirmation of another slogan Peter Beard (a photographer and expat of a somewhat later generation) used for the title of his New York gallery: the time is always now. All good fairy tales need a moral, and this is the moral of Midnight in Paris, delivered so clearly and yet painlessly that it’s not a buzz kill but the means to link Gil’s desires with his reality.

Midnight in Paris opens with a montage of picture-postcard-pretty shots of the City of Light in the sunlight, in the rain, and then in the sunlight again. It’s a clever summation of the film as well as the standard three-act structure Gil (and probably you as well) learned about in English class: setup, complication, and resolution. Sidney Bechet on the soundtrack assures you everything will work out even before you see the sun come up again and this montage, as well, tells you to just sit back and enjoy the ride. | Sarah Boslaugh

 

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