Disclaimer #1: I’m a big Woody Allen fan. I identify with the guy’s thinking on most things. And for all the thematic sameiness, I love his movies.
Disclaimer #2: I love Paris. I’ve only been there once, long ago now, during my Big Overseas Trip back in the 80s. I was so taken with the place that I extended my planned one week stay to a month – it is far and away the most beautiful city I have seen, a work of art no less. And there’s something eerie and transformational about the lighting at night casting yellowed hues upon those grand, ornate old buildings like the gas lamps of earlier eras. Speaking of which…
Disclaimer #3: Like many, I find the myth of bohemian Paris of the 20s irresistibly seductive. You know, the Latin Quarter, Montparnasse, jazz dives and flappers, and the incandescent and dissolute ex-patriate literary and art scene populated by ‘Lost Generation’ figures destined for legend, such as Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Picasso and Gertrude Stein.
I guess I was always going to be a sucker for Woody’s latest, Midnight In Paris.
The setup: Hollywood screenwriter and aspiring novelist Gil (Owen Wilson) is in Paris holidaying with his fiancée, Inez (Rachel McAdams) and her wealthy, conservative parents (Mimi Kennedy, Kurt Fuller). Gil is a dreamer whose imagination is fired by the city and its glorious bohemian past, whereas Inez is very much her parents’ daughter, a glamorous but dull product of rampant blinkered materialism and politically conservative values. He enthuses over the idea of walking with her in the Parisienne rain; she dismisses him derisively, preferring to go high-end shopping with mommy.
They meet up by chance with Inez’s friend Paul (Michael Sheen), a pedantic pseudo-intellectual authority-on-everything, and his wife Carol (Nina Arianda). Gil refuses an after-dinner invitation to go dancing as a foursome, preferring to walk home by himself. Slightly drunk, he gets lost in the winding backstreets and at the witching hour of midnight something wondrous happens…
I’m not going to say any more about the story. Part of the delight of this movie is the surprise deviation it takes, and all that happens as a result.
I can say that Woody engages with great fondness with the mythic world of 20s Left Bank Paris, while simultaneously (and ingeniously) lampooning some of its most revered literary and artistic figures to laugh-out-loud comic effect. The send-ups are not scathing or cruel; rather, they are tonally akin to joshing with old friends.
While Gil is clearly Woody Allen’s alter-ego, Owen Wilson inhabits the character, making Woody’s distinctive voice his own. This is some feat. A superb performance. Actually, all the performances are terrif, the actors perfectly cast and thriving in their roles. Scripts this good must be a joy to work with, and it shows. The actors have a lot of fun, and so do we.
This is an ingenious and utterly enchanting romantic comedy/fantasy that takes flight into the magic realm of fairytale on the wings of a wistful yearning – but inevitably doomed – nostalgia for golden eras past, tempered with uncharacteristically gentle satirical touches and irony, and ultimately guided to a soft landing by a masterful pilot.
Preceded by Manhattan (1979) and Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008), it is the greatest of Allen’s trilogy of filmic love letters to places. But as much as a paean to Paris, it is a brilliant tribute to classic romantic cinema from a more innocent time that leaves you with a perfect feel-good ending and a lump in the throat – and most importantly, does so with integrity and grace. In rebirthing that bygone form into the very different world of the 21st Century as he has here, Allen has pulled off the impossible. He has created a wonderful cocktail of nostalgia and iconoclasty, past and present, romance and cynicism, poetic sensibility and vapid materialism, but far from jarring, these contrasts meld beautifully.
Woody leaves us with the gift of a present informed by the past, and therefore not without hope, or even romance. Good lawd, since Golden Ages are only recognised in retrospect, who’s to know we’re not living through one right now? See – I told you he’s pulled off the impossible with this movie!
This is Woody’s best work in a long, long time, if not ever. Yes, that’s a huge call and I know it. I could make those opening disclaimers earn their real estate and declare this a masterpiece, but that would be pompous (thank the lawd for edit functions). So I’ll just say – redundantly – I love love loved it.
Do not miss.
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