Woody Allen has been making films for so long we either take him for granted…or he’s worn out his welcome. Whatever your opinion of the obsessively neurotic filmmaker, for this reviewer’s money, he is still one of the most refreshingly introspective writers working in film.
Once upon a time, Woody, 75, also starred in his own pictures (Bananas, Sleeper, Manhattan, Annie Hall, Husbands and Wives, Crimes and Misdemeanors). But for the past decade we avid followers get to wait and see which well-known actor will be cast in the “Woody Allen persona” role. Bullets Over Broadway (1994) used the skilled comedic timing of John Cusack to fit the bill. Celebrity (1998) employed Kenneth Branagh as the erratic writer protagonist. In a stroke of inspired casting, Allen cast British born Rebecca Hall (The Town) to voice his neurosis in Vicky Christina Barcelona (2008).
Midnight In Paris gives us Owen Wilson – and it works.
Wilson plays ‘Gil,’ a Hollywood screenwriter on vacation in Paris with his fiancée, ‘Inez,’ (Rachel McAdams) and her parents (Kurt Fuller and Mimi Kennedy). We know from the opening idyllic images of Paris and the traditional Allen jazz accompaniment, that the story is going to be a love note to the City of Lights. “There’s no city like this in the world!” says ‘Gil’ to his gal as we quickly learn that ‘Gil’ is unhappy with his career in Tinseltown. While she dreams of a home in Malibu, he expresses to her in typical Allen self-deprecating tone “I’m a Hollywood hack who never gave serious literature a chance.”
While strolling through The Louvre and taking in ‘The Thinker’ at the Musee de Rodin with ‘Inez’ and their L.A. pals (Michael Sheen and Nina Arianda), ‘Gil’ waxes on and on about his new desire to relocate to Paris and become an ex-pat like his heroes, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway.
He carries on about how he was “born at the wrong time, into the wrong era.” He should have been a writer in Paris in the 1920s, living above a cafe, staring out at the stars, writing his novel. Sheen smirks and quips “All that’s missing is the tuberculosis.”
But then he hits ‘Gil’ square between the eyes with what becomes the thrust of the story. He says that ‘Gil’s’ lament is nothing more than what is known as “Golden Age Thinking.” The notion that you should have been born into a different generation. That no one throughout history has been content with his or her own present day society.
Interesting stuff. And in typical Woody Allen fashion, the story plays out artfully with giggles galore.
As a couple, it is clear from the jump that ‘Gil’ and ‘Inez’ are not on the same page, so one night he sets out solo to walk the rainy streets of Paris. He finds himself lost and sitting alone on a staircase when the clock strikes midnight. Out of nowhere appears a 1920s chauffeur driven car with rowdy revelers who summon the lonely American to join their champagne romp.
In the blink of an eye, ‘Gil’ finds himself at a night club surrounded by giddy flappers and aristocrats. When he comes face to face with ‘Zelda’ and ‘F. Scott’ he realizes he’s not in Kansas anymore. When he is introduced to Ernest Hemingway he realizes he has reached his nirvana.
The premise is excellent and Allen pulls it off with some slick casting and sophisticated writing. Alison Pill (Scott Pilgrim vs The World) and Tom Hiddleston (Thor) are perfect as the Fitzgeralds, Kathy Bates (Oscar winner Misery) makes believable legendary publisher Gertrude Stein, Corey Stoll (TV’s Law & Order: L.A.) is a hoot as Hemingway, delivering every line with life or death intensity, and Adrien Brody (Oscar winner The Pianist) somehow manages to bring to life Salvador Dali in an amusing cafe scene. But it is Marion Cotillard who pulls off the impossible. She actually makes it seem sensible to dump the usually irresistible Rachel McAdams (granted, the script never gives McAdams a fighting chance by making her utterly unlikable).
Cotillard plays ‘Adriana,’ the notorious socialite of the era whom ‘Gil’ meets at Gertrude Stein’s posh flat as they all ponder the worth of Pablo Picasso’s latest canvas. ‘Gil’ is smitten. And who wouldn’t be. Cotillard is radiant in the role, proving yet again she is one of the most magnetic actors working in film. She won the Oscar in 2007 for her portrayal of the beloved French songbird Edith Pilaf in La Vie en Rose, went toe-to-toe last year with Leonardo DiCaprio in Christopher Nolan’s mindbending Inception, and she provided what little luster could be mustered from the ill-conceived Nine (2009), playing the scorned wife to Daniel Day–Lewis ‘Guido,’ proving even in a bad movie she stands out.
Woody Allen has long been our most autobiographical filmmaker. Much like Fellini, he is less interested in telling you the story of his life than the inner workings of his brain.
Fortunately for those of us who find his inner workings amusing, he still has it. When ‘Hemingway’ asks ‘Gil’ if he hunts, ‘Gil’ (Allen) responds “Only for bargains.” When ‘Adriana’ explains that she once dated Modigliani before moving on to bed Picasso, he exalts “You take art groupie to a whole new level.” When ‘Inez’ confronts ‘Gil’ on a hotel mishap she screams “You’re always siding with the help! That’s why daddy says you’re a Communist!” Funny stuff.
But the nuts and bolts of the picture come in an exchange between ‘Gil’ and ‘Adriana,’ as she now longs for the Bel Époque era of the 1890s over his desired era of the 1920s. She complains that her existence is “unsatisfying” to which ‘Gil’ (Allen) explains “The present is a little unsatisfying because life is a little unsatisfying.”
A supporting casting choice in the film shines a light on the director’s real life dissatisfaction. ‘Gil’ stumbles upon a local Parisian merchant on one of his walks who just so happens to share his love of Cole Porter. “You’re too young to like Cole Porter,” he says to the girl, who does look to be barely out of her teens. She also just so happens to be the spitting image of a young Mia Farrow.
I won’t go so far as to call Woody Allen a national treasure. His personal life and the baggage he carries, whether here or abroad, is significant. But he is surely no “Hollywood hack.”