Sunday, May 22, 2011

Midnight in Paris Movie Review: City of Lights After Dark

 “It is one of the paradoxes of American literature that our writers are forever looking back with love and nostalgia at lives they couldn’t wait to leave.” – Anatole Broyard

Is there no time as good as the present? Is nostalgia the exclusive purview of fools? How does remembering fondly grow out of proportion until it becomes reliving? Gil Pender is stuck in a rut, hamstrung by pervasive thoughts that Paris in the Roaring Twenties was the absolute pinnacle of living. Because Gil is a character in Woody Allen’s latest addition to his perennially expanding oeuvre, he is a writer (of successful, but empty Hollywood screenplays) working on his first novel and saddled with sarcastic wit, passion for the arts, and a healthy dose of self-doubt and insecurity.

In Paris for a holiday with his fiancée, Inez, he waxes poetically about the captivating beauty of the City of Lights (as does the cinematography of Darius Khondji, especially in an extended opening montage that does for Paris what Manhattan did for New York) and professes his desire to live there – his first expression of a “grass is always greener” mentality. Of course Inez is marked immediately as a mismatch for him when she completely rejects his idea as ridiculous. Unfortunately for Rachel McAdams, that is about the extent of her character development. McAdamas is a charming and inviting actress, but she’s given little to do but continually deflate Gil’s excitement and pleasure. She’s a real letdown considering Allen’s history of writing memorable female roles.

There’s no indication provided for why Gil is even with her. They seemingly have nothing in common. She’s a rich snob whose principal interests involve searching for expensive household furniture, and her parents make no secret of their outright disdain for Gil and his liberal ideas.

Owen Wilson plays Gil with the usual mixture of loose and cool that he brings to everything he does. It’s a new spin on the Allen alter-ego and refreshing at that. Wilson is an actor who floats into a scene, lights it up with his laid back delivery and then delivers the funniest line without overselling it. It’s a shame that McAdams simply doesn’t match up with him as well as she did in Wedding Crashers. One actor who does bring something substantial to the film is Michael Sheen, who plays Paul, a former professor and crush of Inez, who (as coincidence always has it in Allen’s films) is also in Paris.

Paul is another Allen stock character – the intellectual know-it-all who impresses the female love interest and threatens to steal her away. Sheen is an actor who keeps demonstrating again and again why he is a must have for just about any film. Unfortunately the screenplay does away with his character in the second half. The intellectual and cultural snob is a tricky role to play, but when Sheen has to deliver a line during a wine tasting about why he prefers one vintage to another, he nails the tone. Paul comes across as more real than cartoonish and one-dimensional.

Through the first half hour, Allen’s screenplay fumbles around with some decent one-liners, but it doesn’t start moving until Gil gets into a 1920s automobile that whisks him off to a party populated by the American literati who had a habit of spending lots of time in Paris in the 20s. At first Gil is just sort of bemused by the fashions and the fact that a guy who looks an awful lot like Cole Porter is playing Porter tunes on the piano. Then a handsome American introduces himself as Scott…Scott Fitzgerald (Tom Hiddleston). Oh, and by the way, this is his wife, Zelda (Alison Pill). If that doesn’t inspire sufficient chuckles, just wait until Gil sits down at a table with a hard-drinking, womanizing, brash and honest writer named Ernest. When Gil talks about a novel he’s working on, Papa Hemingway suggests he take it to Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates) the next day. If you like that bit of name-dropping (which is sort of what Allen is up to in these fantasy sequences), you’ll also be tickled by appearances including Picasso, Josephine Baker, the great bullfighter Juan Belmonte (dutifully at Hemingway’s side, of course), and a bizarre meeting in a café with the surrealists Salvador Dalí, Luís Buñuel and Man Ray.

The novelty wears thin rather quickly especially with Adrien Brody’s scenery-chewing performance of Dalí, who has an obsession with rhinos (but Dalí’s work with rhino horns came in the 50s. However, Bates eats up the role of the tersely critical Stein, deconstructing a Picasso portrait of his lover, Adriana (Marion Cotillard), who will quickly become Gil’s love interest.

Allen uses the whimsical premise to help make a larger philosophical point – that looking back on the past always looks better from outside because we have the power to filter out the undesirable elements. Midnight in Paris may elicit comparisons to The Purple Rose of Cairo merely for the fantasy storyline, but the end results are much different. Adriana surprises Gil by telling him she wishes she could return to the Belle Epoque, when life must have been perfect. None of the artists he meets seem to have any conception of their contributions to the world. How could they? In the 20s Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Picasso were probably just trying to find a place for both their art and themselves in the world. They obviously didn’t find it in their home countries and so spent a great deal of time abroad. Gil has this much in common with them even if he comes from an era that reveres instant celebrity.

The question that remains throughout is whether Gil’s late night dalliances with these artists is real or imagined. He has no witnesses and the only indication that he might not be suffering from delusions is a small nugget tossed into a book he picks up in the present day that has an obvious reference to him. It is another remarkable Allen coincidence that he should happen to come across this book in a bargain bin for sale by a street vendor. Ultimately the question as to the provenance of the fantasy is irrelevant as either way it would bring Gil to the same conclusion – one that Woody himself has obviously grappled with throughout a great deal of his work. It’s comforting in a way to see a director continuing to contend with similar themes – love and finding the right person; the nature of art and how to create it; finding the right balance between being a learned scholar and pompous jackass – and continuing to churn out respectable, if not always remarkable works himself.

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