Nostalgia. Now that’s a word not uncommon around a Woody Allen picture. His films have always oozed of it, and now that his filmmaking legacy spans more than 40 years, to some people, an Allen film equates to it. “Midnight in Paris” falls under both categories. Remarkably, only Woody has been able to riff on the same themes, characters, ideas, etc. for decades and manage to still churn out thoughtful, funny and heartwarming pictures (when making a comedy, of course, not one of his tragedies). Perhaps “Midnight in Paris” derives its warranted praise and acclaim merely for freshly emulating Allen’s beloved past work. Call him a cheater if you like for simply whipping up a new modern context for the same shtick, but “Midnight in Paris” could charm a tweed jacket and thick-rimmed spectacles onto almost anyone.
A breezy summer romance, “Midnight in Paris” harkens back to Allen’s work in the early-to-mid ’80s with films such as “Stardust Memories” and “The Purple Rose of Cairo.” His trademark “intellectual” dialogue functions in the capacity of what purpose it serves rather than a need to understand what it means, and with exception of main character Gil Pender (Owen Wilson), all the supporting cast members are role players in this fairy tale of sorts rather than complex multi-subplot characters.
Gil Pender is your typical Allen-would’ve-played-him-had-this-been-30-years-ago protagonist, a screenwriter manufacturing soulless Hollywood material who hopes that his planned novel will benefit inspirationally from a city that has moved so many great artists before him — Paris. He travels with his fiancée, Inez (Rachel McAdams), who yearns to learn from Paris the more practical way and criticizes Gil’s lack of sociability. While Inez spends her days learning Paris from uber-intellectual Paul (Michael Sheen), a caricature of Allen’s most pretentious characters, Gil takes to the streets at night for an intangible inspiration. What he finds in Paris after midnight changes everything, including an alluring young French woman named Adriana (Marion Cotillard).
The only character other than Gil to receive any attention is the city herself. Paris takes on this amorphous identity as defined by the characters who perceive it. For Gil, Paris is magic, and as such that’s what it becomes for the viewer. As we later come to learn, a city’s ability to cradle the history of its impermanent people and absorb their stories is what constructs its aura. This geographical timelessness evokes the emotions of those who seek inspiration from something greater than themselves.
Without diving into the details of Gil’s late-night adventures, Gil does learn something that challenges his desire to cling to nostalgia. The challenge of any great writer or artist is to capture and express the uncomfortable, troubling and intangible void that is the present. To keep things simple in making this point, the other characters serve to magnify Gil’s journey to enlightenment. Even, Inez, who we expect more from considering McAdams’ ability to turn fluff into substance, becomes a deplorable and one-sided character quite rapidly. But despite Inez being written so harshly, she does help convey the fairy tale feel of the film, which Allen clearly aimed for and struck the bullseye.
There’s definitely a sense that Allen purposefully sidestepped any serious drama or consequences for Gil’s actions or those of anyone in the film, frankly. Knowing Allen’s capability to add an a powerful gravity to relationship conflict, it’s surprising he chooses to exercise none of it when the film could’ve been better for it or at least his ideas more resonant. Instead, he chooses to let the story float about as this postcard from Paris, one signed with love and addressed to his fans, those who’ve pined to recapture the Woody of old. Yet with impeccable self-awareness as usual, the great filmmaker adds a postscript in the form of a thematic reminder that dwelling in the past constitutes nothing but an escape unless we use it to understand and empower our present. That, of course, is what Woody’s done with “Midnight in Paris.”
Midnight in Paris
Written and Directed by Woody Allen
Starring: Owen Wilson, Rachel McAdams, Marion Cotillard, Michael Sheen