This is a picture about perspective, so, just for yuks, let’s begin with a brief exercise in it. Many of us enjoy the work of Judd Apatow. How many of us, though, believe he’ll still be making Judd Apatow films at the age of 75? The Farrelly brothers have made some of the funniest movies of our time. Is there anyone who doubts they’ll have exhausted themselves creatively long before making their 41st?
So, how cool is it that Woody Allen is not just still creating Woody Allen films at that ripe age, but creating his funniest and most fanciful in many years? Midnight in Paris has rightly been called the writer-director’s love letter to the City of Lights. It’s also a reminder of why we fell in love with his work in the first place.
Owen Wilson stars in the role of Gil Pender, a successful Hollywood screenwriter in the throes of an existential crisis. (You know you’re in Woodyworld when a character questions his anything-for-a-buck career choice and yearns to realize his youthful dream of becoming a serious novelist.) His condition is aggravated by a trip to Paris in the company of his superficial fiancée, Inez (Rachel McAdams), and her wealthy, disapproving parents.
Surrounded by art and beauty, Gil begins to fantasize about living the life of an expatriate writer. Wilson plays him as a wide-eyed, almost childlike variation on the Allen alter-ego — more nerd than neurotic. He wants to stay and stroll the streets with a baguette under his arm. Inez wants to shop and then set up home in Malibu as soon as possible.
One night Gil takes a walk by himself and gets lost on a cobblestoned side street. He’s a little drunk, and so doesn’t catch on right away when the bells of a nearby church strike 12, an antique limo pulls up, and a woman named Zelda (Alison Pill) yells through the window, “C’mon, we’re going to a party for Jean Cocteau!” He spends the rest of the evening in English-major heaven, being called “old sport” by Scott Fitzgerald (Tom Hiddleston) and jovially invited to box by Ernest Hemingway (Corey Stoll).
Allen doesn’t waste time explaining Gil’s midnight road trips to the Roaring Twenties. They just happen, and the filmmaker has a field day with them. Indeed, watching this movie feels like something of a trip back in time for the viewer, too — back to the days when Allen reigned as the cinema’s most cerebral, inventive comic force, and a hit comedy could be built on ideas rather than on poop jokes and projectile vomiting.
You can sense long-dormant parts of your brain flickering back to life as Wilson’s starstruck character interacts with titans of this golden age. Kathy Bates is dead-on as Gertrude Stein, who helps Gil with his novel. A terrific running gag has the young Hemingway speaking in an exaggerated version of his distinctive writing style. Allen devises a brilliant scene where Gil pitches Luis Buñuel an idea for a film that the surrealist can’t wrap his head around (and which, of course, turns out to be the premise of a movie Buñuel actually made). Adrien Brody is a hoot and a half as Salvador Dalí, and I’m reasonably certain this is the first mainstream comedy to give a speaking part to Man Ray.
The central idea of Midnight in Paris is this: Appreciate the present; it’s a waste of time to glorify some past moment. The people who lived in that period very likely had golden-age yearnings of their own. As does a beauty played by Marion Cotillard. When Gil bumps into her, she’s dating Picasso — having already broken the hearts of Braque and Modigliani — and she dreams of ditching the ho-hum Paris of the ’20s for the far more happening Belle Époque of the 1890s.
Gil himself characterizes this as a “minor insight” — but, again, it’s a matter of perspective. Next to the premise of The Hangover Part II, it looks like the theory of relativity. The bottom line is that this is a gorgeously shot, imaginatively conceived and winningly acted fable, and it’s great to find Allen once again in top form. Who else could make such a convincing case for living in the present with a story about having a blast in the past?