It’s possible that Woody Allen’s new film, “Midnight in Paris,” is an elbow to the ribs of his fans, himself or both. Regardless, it’s fresher, funnier and more original than anything he’s done in a long time.
The film stars Owen Wilson as Gil Bender, a self-loathing “Hollywood hack” screenwriter struggling to finish his first novel. He’s in Paris on vacation with his fiancée (the hopelessly miscast Rachel McAdams) and her parent, but his incessant cooing about how magnificent Paris is, especially in the rain, or the 1920s, bores everyone to tears. To this day Gil kicks himself for not having lived there when he was younger and really trying to write seriously.
One night, Gil takes a stroll through the City of Lights, only to find himself somehow transported back to the age of the Lost Generation, and suddenly he’s drinking with Zelda (a great Allison Pill) and her husband Scott (Tom Hiddleston turning in his second nice turn of the month)—yes, as in Fitzgerald. And there in the corner is Cole Porter at the piano singing “Let’s Fall in Love.”
What follows is a razor-sharp dissection and dismissal of one of the most pernicious illnesses to plague this or any time: Nostalgia. As Gil returns night after night to the Paris of the 1920s, having his book read by his heroes, drinking with some of the greatest painters ever, pitching ideas to legendary filmmakers… his romantic idealism of the time is affirmed at every turn—until the illusion is blown to pieces.
Allen has dabbled in the fantastic and magical before -- think "Purple Rose of Cairo" -- and does again here to great effect, never pushing too hard against the mechanics of what’s happening nor taking too many liberties. But fear not, lest you think he completely ducks the question of whether what Gil’s experienced is real or imagined, he makes it clear with one hilarious scene.
Wilson’s wide-eyed dopey naiveté serves Gill well here. And it’s easy to forget that Wilson himself was once a screenwriter on the rise, collaborating with Wes Anderson on two of his better films, “Bottle Rocket” and “Rushmore,” before improbably morphing into a box-office schlock hound. This history gives a little extra edge to Gil’s regrets.
You can understand why Rachel McAdams took the role of Gil’s fiancée, Inez, but what possessed Allen to cast her is anyone’s guess. McAdams’ charm and energy is so great that it almost made “Morning Glory” watchable. But Inez is such a minor part, and she's neither pleasant or nasty enough to make McAdams a good choice.
“Midnight in Paris” is as close as you can get to a trip to the Paris of the ‘20s and still feel good about going home.
“Midnight in Paris” made its world premiere today as the opening film at the Cannes Film Festival. It goes into limited release stateside on May 20.