By Ezra Stead
Midnight in Paris, Spain / USA, 2011
Written and Directed by Woody Allen
Woody Allen’s latest love letter to his favorite European city is the epitome of a lowbrow-highbrow movie, a film that makes its audience feel smart without ever actually being challenging or unpredictable. It starts out promisingly enough, with a gorgeous montage of Paris locales courtesy of the great cinematographer Darius Khondji (The City of Lost Children, Se7en) and a whimsical, mood-setting score by Stephane Wrembel, who previously contributed music to Allen’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008). Then, over the trademark Woody Allen credits on a black screen, the talking begins, and the film’s problems along with it.
Gil Pender (Owen Wilson) is a Hollywood screenwriter who has fallen in love with Paris while vacationing there with his fiancée, Inez (Rachel McAdams) and her parents, John (Kurt Fuller) and Helen (Mimi Kennedy). Now Gil is convinced that he should stay in Paris and finally get serious about being a novelist, instead of returning to California and his life as “another Hollywood hack,” much to the chagrin of Inez, Helen and especially John, who thinks Gil is no good for his daughter. In point of fact, John is right – Gil and Inez are in no way right for each other; as Gil himself later says, they have little in common beyond the superficiality of a taste for Indian food, or at least “some Indian food.” Most of this first act is pretty standard Woody Allen, with Wilson comfortably filling in the part of a younger Woody previously inhabited by actors as diverse as Kenneth Branagh (1998’s Celebrity) and Will Ferrell (2004’s Melinda and Melinda), among others.
After traipsing around with Inez and her friend Paul (Michael Sheen), a pretentious, pedantic intellectual who Gil rightly despises and with whom Inez is clearly very infatuated, Gil decides to take a late-night stroll by himself to collect his thoughts. When the clock strikes midnight, Gil is unexpectedly whisked away in a 90-year-old automobile for a night of drunken revelry with none other than F. Scott Fitzgerald (Tom Hiddleston) and his wife, Zelda (Alison Pill), which obviously comes as a shock. Before the night is done, Gil has also become acquainted with Ernest Hemingway (Corey Stoll), who agrees to pass on Gil’s unfinished novel to Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates) for a critique. This second act is Midnight in Paris at its most enjoyable; watching Gil encounter his heroes in the arts world of 1920s Paris is magical, whimsical and downright fun – Stoll’s performance as Hemingway is particularly endearing – even if what we see of these famous folks is little more than broad caricature based on what we in the 21st century know of them from literature and history. This can be easily justified within the film because this is simply how Gil sees them, and in objective reality, Gil is presumably just insane, or at least prone to lengthy states of delusion.
The problem is that in that same objective reality, during the day when Gil is back in the present with Inez, she and her parents – not to mention Paul – are also just broad caricatures, which points to rather lazy writing on Allen’s part. John is a right-wing stereotype, and Inez is exactly the sort of daughter a simplistically liberal mind would attribute to that upbringing: self-centered, self-righteous and materialistic. All of this, as well as Gil’s flirtation with antiques dealer and fellow Cole Porter aficionado Gabrielle (Lea Seydoux), very plainly telegraphs and justifies Gil’s need to leave Inez. A more complex-minded screenwriter – as someone with Allen’s reputation should arguably be – might paint some shades of gray into Inez and make the decision difficult for his protagonist, but unfortunately, there is none of that here. Instead, Inez and her parents are clearly the bad guys, holding Gil back from self-actualization, and he is our eminently likable hero, which is blatantly narcissistic of Allen when the character is so clearly an extension of himself and his pet obsessions.
This brings us to the most troubling part of the film: the third act, in which everything really falls apart and the screenplay begins to waste time saying in explicit dialogue what it was already showing in its situations. “I’m having an insight,” Gil actually says out loud at one point, in the absolute worst scene of the movie, and then proceeds to explain to his 1920s love interest Adriana (Marion Cotillard) that no one appreciates their own period in time, even if future generations will look back on it as the best era in which to live. To reiterate, the problem with this is not the message itself, which up until that point was being nicely represented in a more cinematic way. The problem is that Allen so blatantly panders to the least intelligent members of his audience by just saying out loud what any thinking person should be able to infer. Judging by the fact that this film grossed higher at the box office than any of his previous efforts, he was not mistaken in underestimating the intelligence of the American public, but I found myself wanting something more from such a critically beloved film by a director whose work I greatly admire. I’m sorry, but a movie that explicitly states all of its themes through dialogue is far from the best screenplay of the year. It is also a decidedly mixed blessing that someone finally cast Adrien Brody as Salvador Dali, but only as a cameo in such an ultimately disappointing film.
Ezra Stead is the Head Editor for MoviesIDidn’tGet.com. Ezra is also a screenwriter, actor, filmmaker, rapper and poet who has been previously published in print and online, as well as writing, directing and acting in numerous short films and two features. A Minneapolis native, Ezra currently lives in Brooklyn, New York.
For more information, please contact EzraStead@MoviesIDidntGet.com.