REVIEW SUMMARY: Woody Allen returns to magic realist territory for an enjoyable if ultimately slight look at Paris is the 1920s.
BRIEF SYNOPSIS: One evening, successful screenwriter Gil Pender, on vacation in Paris, gets into a car with a group of strangers and finds himself transported among Gertrude Stein’s Lost Generation.
PROS: Allen’s most beautifully shot movie since Manhattan; excellent casting of the writers, artists, and filmmakers of the period, notably Kathy Bates as Gertrude Stein, Corey Stoll as Ernest Hemingway, and Adrien Brody as Salvador Dalí, and, as usual, an excellent jazz soundtrack.
CONS: Allen’s shallowest movie since Scoop; too slight; the ninety-minute running time leads to one-dimensional portraits of the artists, writers, and filmmakers…and most of the other characters; Wilson’s character not neurotic enough; slightness of observations and epiphanies.
One of Woody Allen’s old stand-up routines involves him traveling to Europe in April and meeting members of what Gertrude Stein dubbed “The Lost Generation,” specifically F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and Pablo Picasso, each brief anecdote ending with, “Hemingway punched me in the mouth.” It’s a delightfully effervescent piece, and I recalled it upon learning the premise of Midnight in Paris, Allen’s latest movie: a twenty-first century writer travels back in time to the great French city during the 1920s and meets those very individuals. I recalled the routine again as I left the theater, primarily because the movie, though ninety minutes longer, unfortunately possesses the same level of depth. A shame, too, because Midnight in Paris, Allen’s return to fantasy after a long, long absence, brims with energy and shimmers with potential even as it disappoints. Though never bad, though always enjoyable, it feels more like one of the parties the time traveling Gil Pender (Owen Wilson) attends–where one may catch a glimpse of Cole Porter (Yves Heck) or “Tom” Eliot (David Lowe), but learn little more than their idiosyncrasies–than a fully formed movie.
Take, for example, Allen’s portrayals of the relationship between Fitzgerald (Tom Hiddleston), Zelda (Alison Pill), and Ernest Hemingway (Corey Stoll). Although he captures many of the key facets of each character–Fitzgerald’s love for Zelda despite his complete denial, Zelda’s fun-loving exterior concealing the onset of schizophrenia, Hemingway’s need for masculine competition disguising his complete boorishness–but never quite allows enough depth to make them function as characters. And this criticism extends to the others; Pender also runs into Salvador Dalí (Adrien Brody), who obsesses over rhinoceroses, and Luis Buñuel (Adrien de Van) appears incapable of grasping the central surreal conceit of one of his own movies (specifically The Exterminating Angel) when Pender suggests it–funny scenes on their own, yes, but adding depth would have made them funnier. Even Pender’s fiancé’s parents (Kurt Fuller and Mimi Kennedy) and friends (Michael Sheen and Nina Arianda) come off less as neurotic successes (see how Allen handles similar situations in Annie Hall and Manhattan) and more as caricatures of Ugly Americans. Only Kathy Bates as Gertrude Stein shows more than one dimension; her scenes shine.
Or maybe not. But Owen Wilson, as Pender, hinders matters. A screenwriter on vacation with his fiancé Inez’s (Rachel McAdams) family, he is in love with the city (with Allen’s breathtaking shots of the Paris skyline and streets, who wouldn’t be?) and wants nothing more than to live there and write something other than the hack screenplays that afford him a living in Hollywood. He is working on his first novel, though those around him are hardly supportive of his efforts, especially Inez to the point that one wonders what the two have in common. (“We both like pita bread,” he says at one point.) So it comes as no surprise that he would decide to walk the street of Paris and, at midnight, get in a car with a group of strangers who take him back in time (how? Allen never explains, and frankly doesn’t need to) to a party attended by Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald. He stands as gobsmacked as one would expect, and thrills at meeting Hemingway…who, of course, demands they box.
But Pender, who becomes familiar with the faces and people of this “golden past,” remains problematic, even as he asks Stein to read his novel and falls in love with socialite Adriana (Marion Cotillard). That Pender longs for the Jazz Age is understandable to almost any writer, but he fails to coalesce into much more than a simulacrum of Allen himself, though lacking the neuroses or nebbish qualities that made Allen, at his best, work. The problem both lies and does not lie with Wilson, interestingly. A fine actor, no stranger to comedy (though not necessarily good comedy), on paper he presents a promising stand-in for the typical Allen protagonist, but unfortunately doesn’t convincingly portray a neurotic, replacing it with an earnestness and sincerity that doesn’t quite work. Moreover, throughout most of his comedies, Allen, no one’s idea of a dashing leading man, plays alongside attractive (though equally neurotic) women: Diane Keaton, Diane Wiest, Charlotte Rampling, the list goes on. To think that Owen Wilson–blonde, laconic and Texan–would have trouble turning the heads of McAdams or Cotillard (or even a curio shopkeeper Gabrielle, played by Léa Seydoux) rings false. When he asks a modern day museum guide (Carla Bruni) to read Adriana’s diary (which he finds for sale in a curio shop), she remembers him because of a discussion with Inez’s friend Paul Bates (Sheen), whom she describes as “pedantic,” and smiles with him at the private joke. In another movie, Pender would make this sexy guide cringe. Here, she is a confidante.
Even more curios, Allen resists really pulling out the fantasy stops one finds in The Purple Rose of Cairo or Alice. When Pender and Adriana walk through 1920s Paris she admits loving the Belle Époque, and at midnight a horse-drawn carriage takes them there, where they meet Toulouse-Lautrec (Vincent Menjou Cortes) and Gauguin (Olivier Rabourdin), while a detective hired by Inez’s father to spy on Pender’s midnight excursions gets lost in eighteenth-century Versailles. Allen could have had had a lot of fun playing with the conceits, as he did in his story “The Kugelmas Episode.”
And yet Midnight in Paris has so much charm, so many deft moments, that one leaves the theater (especially those who studied American literature very closely) with a goofy grin and, for a little while, a feeling of being taken to someplace more magical than any of the ersatz suburbs of Faerie filmed over the past three years. Allen uses too many broad strokes to write his characters, but he casts each of them well; Adrien Brody is particularly buoyant as Dalí (emphasizing the accent each time he says his name), as is Stoll’s Hemingway. But Kathy Bates steals the picture as Gertrude Stein, portraying her as a no-nonsense, incredibly pragmatic hub of artistic activity. And it’s great to see Allen return to his odd use of magic realism. Midnight in Paris may be as effervescent as a champagne bubble, but it proves that his work can still intoxicate.