Sunday, June 12, 2011

Past Imperfect (Midnight in Paris)

(Warning: Spoilers.)

Remember, in Annie Hall, the scene at a Hollywood party, when one of the guests says about a studio exec: "He gives good meeting"? Owen Wilson gives good double-take. His abashed likability as an actor rests partly in his lazy drawl of a delivery, slightly in his busted nose, and largely in reaction shots that range from touching ("Please stop belittling me," his insecure, depressed writer tells Gwyneth Paltrow in The Royal Tenenbaums) to sublime (a genuine sense of joy and wonder at Jackie Chan's fleet footwork in Shanghai Noon). Wilson plays another writer, named Gil Pender, in Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris, a successful Hollywood hack on vacation in Paris with his materialistic fiance Inez (Rachel McAdams) and her well-off, freedom-fries loving parents (Mimi Kennedy and Kurt Fuller). Wilson's double-takes get a workout when Gil, alone on a midnight stroll, is magically transported back to 1920s Gay Paree, where he meets the luminaries of the "The Lost Generation" -- among others, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Gertrude Stein -- a fitting happenstance for our hero, being a lost soul himself.

"The best Woody Allen movie in years!" seems to be the response to every other Woody Allen movie these days. But the critics seemed to mean it this time, following a successful premiere at Cannes. (Not always a sure thing for Franco-centric movies -- see Inglourious Basterds.) Midnight in Paris is the first Allen film I've seen in a movie theater since Hannah and Her Sisters, and only one of a handful that I've bothered watching over the last couple decades. I liked the sunnily cynical Vicky Cristina Barcelona and admired the grim Match Point, but Midnight in Paris goes deeper than those films, and in a disarmingly casual manner. You would expect Gil, who hopes to break from screenwriting by penning a serious literary novel (which we learn is about the owner of a "nostalgia shop" that sells old clocks and other pieces of antique ephemera), to be wowed by his fantastical encounters with his heroes, and he is. What makes the premise work, however, is that Gil's bug-eyed wonder gradually gives way to the realization that these icons were once people too.

You come to see Allen's intentions through the fact that nearly every actor underplays: Tom Hiddleston makes a suave Fitz; Corey Stoll, as Hemingway, achieves an effect best described as subtle machismo; Kathy Bates is effectively low-key as Stein, who offers Gil useful advice on his book. (Getting Kathy Bates to downplay anything is quite an accomplishment.) Occasionally a broad caricature -- such as Alison Pill's twangy Zelda Fitzgerald or Adrien Brody's delightfully daffy Salvadore Dali -- pops up to provide a dash of color, but the context of every scene takes Gil's magical visitations at face-value. In one of the film's most buoyant moments, Dali is joined by his friends, the young Spanish filmmaker Luis Bunuel (Adrien de Ven) and the American artist Man Ray (Tom Cordier), and the trio of Surrealists are intrigued by yet completely unskeptical of Gil's story.

Separated by a few generations, Gil is nevertheless ID'd as a kindred spirit to these artists of yore (who also include Cole Porter, Pablo Picasso, Josephine Baker, and T.S. Eliot), and he feels an incontrovertible itch to leave his fiance and her overbearing family and settle in Paris. It's unclear whether Gil has it in him to be great, and the movie could have used a few scenes with him at a laptop (or typewriter) applying his craft, but it's refreshing that a passage from his book that we do hear (recited by Stein) sounds truly promising. (Few things are depicted by Hollywood as unconvincingly as talent.) Gil's prose also captures the attention of one of Stein's guests, Adriana (Marion Cotillard) -- mistress first to Picasso, then Hemingway -- with whom Gil falls in love.

Midnight in Paris really starts to hit a groove once Wilson and Cotillard are together onscreen: the former, whose dialogue sounds initially like it's written for Woody's vocal inflections, finds his character's center; the latter, who is in danger of getting typecast as an otherwordly presence, "the Magic Frenchwoman" (being the most beautiful actress currently in movies will do that to you), becomes flesh. Adriana, unlike Gil, sees nothing special about the time she lives in; at one point, she and Gil hitch a carriage ride back to an even earlier historical era, the Belle Epoque, where she is awed by the likes of Degas and Gauguin -- who, tellingly, are as disappointed by their generation as she is hers and Gil his.

Allen takes his central idea so much further than cutesy-poo "What famous person would you like to have dinner with?" gimmickry that the opportunities he misses become more glaring. He wastes a gifted comedienne in Rachel McAdams, and blows a potential comic goldmine by not having Inez go back with Gil and interact with his idols. Better still would have been sending her family back: the always-priceless Kurt Fuller -- no slouch at reaction shots himself -- would have been more than game. Instead, Allen falls back on a few easy Tea Party jabs, without realizing that contextualizing their worldviews within the world might offer something more revealing. (To put it another way, the only thing funnier than Sarah Palin lecturing about Paul Revere is imagining her actually meeting Revere himself.) Faring marginally better, despite the relative thanklessness of his role, is Michael Sheen, unrecognizable as a buff, bearded know-it-all whose vanity Inez finds irresistibly attractive. It might have been fun sending him back in time too, so he could quarrel with historical figures about the facts of their own lives.

Happily, Midnight in Paris follows Allen's main throughline and becomes, quite by accident, very much a movie of the moment. Our cultural nostalgia blender continues to be on puree -- the Spielberg self-homage Super 8 only the latest in what strikes many of us who endured the 1980s as a return to a past not worth revisiting. Yet I have to admit that Allen's movie has given me pause: Were those of us who grew up experiencing Spielberg's (and other filmmakers') early movies more fortunate than we realized then or now? I've also been pondering the message of the equally timely, most recent South Park episode: Does begrudging contemporary moviegoers the pleasures of even a pale imitation of our 80s cinematic experience -- or refusing to recognize that that imitation may even have its own value -- make me, to use medical parlance, "a cynical asshole"?

I think that blog-pal Sheila O'Malley's affectionate yet not uncritical attitude toward nostalgia, best exemplified in her semi-regular "Diary Friday" pieces, is akin to what Woody Allen is getting at in Midnight in Paris. Cynics have accused Allen in recent years of casting younger actors, whether appropriate to their roles or not, as a means of getting his movies made, and they're not wrong. (Ditto his move to European settings, where it's evidently cheaper than shooting in New York.) Watching Owen Wilson, though -- as I did with Rebecca Hall in Vicky Cristina Barcelona -- I realized that there's nothing jaundiced about Allen's attitude toward the young generation of actors: he feels genuine affection for them. Yet it's easy to forget that Wilson, while certainly spry compared to the 75-year-old director of his movie, is now in his early-40s, on the cusp of middle-age and, as we all know, a battler of some personal demons. He looks in better shape than when he appeared in The Darjeeling Limited a few years ago, but the quiet despair of his character feels so authentic that when Gil finally finds relief it carries over to the other side of the screen.

After seeing Midnight in Paris, I reentered the real world in an unusually sanguine state of mind, a sense of calm and patience staying with me for the remainder of the day. In this lucid state, my mind drifted to Wilson's funniest line in The Royal Tenenbaums. "We all know Custer died at Little Big Horn," his Eli Cash, author of American historical fiction, says. He continues, "What my book presupposes is...." and then caps it with a wonderfully goofy flourish: "...maybe he didn't?" Eli is a lost boy and a tortured soul, reshaping history without really understanding it. Gil, more wisely, comes to terms between recognizing the past and living in the present, and learns that the middle-ground between those poles may be found on a long boulevard in a lovely walk through the rain.


Richard Bellamy said...

Craig - Well written. Your review actually makes me like the film more than I did. I love Paris, Owen Wilson, and many of the writers and artists who appear in Gil's time trips, so there was a lot to enjoy here. I loved the portrayal of Hemingway, who speaks in his own written prose. Very clever! (Gertrude Stein was dull and very blandly performed, however.)

On the negative side, I found myself getting irritated with Allen's style of getting his main character, and others, to act and sound like himself. Why not just let Wilson find his own delivery? For me, that broke up Gil's character; I felt too often like I was watching Woody Allen. But your review has reminded me of some of the film's nuances and how the ending is a triumph for Gil.

Craig said...

Thanks, Hokahey. Woody's been doing that to his leading men for years, or at least since he stopped being his own leading man. The choices for the "Woody Allen movie" actor seem to be as follows: A) do a Woody imitation (like Kenneth Branaugh in "Celebrity"); or B) try to create your own character and voice (like Michael Caine in "Hannah and Her Sisters"). Owen Wilson wisely goes for option B, and it worked for me because I bought him as a writer. Part of that had to do with the link to Eli Cash; and part of it is because he has been a screenwriter himself.

Wilson also betters Allen in one crucial aspect: He's more believable as a wide-eyed romantic. Had Woody played this role twenty years ago he'd have been too jaded; the delicate fantasy would have curdled. Wilson still has enough of a twinkle in his eyes to sell the fantasy, yet there's some pain behind that twinkle. Here's where it becomes difficult to separate the actor from the character, but I found the struggle to not let that pain consume him very touching.

The Film Doctor said...

Nice analysis, Craig. I too enjoyed Midnight in Paris last weekend, but I soon found myself distrusting that pleasure, in part because Allen seemed to be so calculating in the way the movie flatters its liberal writer-wannabe audience. The long Manhattanesque start struck me as a picture postcard tourist promotion of the city, and I was bothered by the way the storyline ultimately dismisses Rachel McAdams (as if part of the pleasure of latter-day Woody Allen's work lay in his ability to discard highly talented actors). You saw more than I did in Owen Wilson, who comes across as a particularly cuddly puppy dog protagonist. In general, there's too much wish-fulfillment in Allen's vision of such a bunch of sweet accepting high Modernists.

Craig said...

I can understand distrusting that pleasure, considering how little Woody has given it over the last several years. I was bothered by how Allen used McAdams, or didn't use her, but frankly relieved that he sent the family packing. I was bracing for one of his pessimistic endings, that Gil's trapped and there's nothing he can do about it, so the fact he went another way struck me as less flattery than just a simple gift. Much like the entire movie.

Craig said...

Follow-up thought: Hemingway, Fitzgerald, et al are so much on the verge of extinction in our comic-book culture that I'm not sure any mention of them wouldn't come across as highbrow flattery or pandering. What I liked about "Midnight in Paris" is that Gil ultimately rejects his initial wish-fulfillment fantasy and opts to live in the present, albeit on his own terms. Rejection may not even be the right word; more like he absorbs the lessons of the past, rather than let the past absorb him.

Jason Bellamy said...

Faring marginally better, despite the relative thanklessness of his role, is Michael Sheen, unrecognizable as a buff, bearded know-it-all whose vanity Inez finds irresistibly attractive. It might have been fun sending him back in time too, so he could quarrel with historical figures about the facts of their own lives.

Oh, that would have been spectacular! Sheen is terrific. Steals every scene he's in, even when his best lines were spoiled by the trailer.

Other thoughts ...

* I hope to put this into some kind of ramblings piece of scattered thoughts, but Midnight in Paris would make for a nice double-feature with Certified Copy, as both films explore reality and fantasy and the value of truth.

* The film this reminded me of is Deconstructing Harry, which might remain my favorite latter-day Allen film. Like that film, I found this simply yet smartly playful.

* What do we think of the poster? I swing between loving it and thinking it's lame.

* To anyone reading: When's the last time you've enjoyed Kathy Bates in anything?

* I'd love a sequel of Hemingway hanging out with Sheen's character. Just that for 90 minutes.

Craig said...


1. Never thought of comparing "Midnight" with "Certified," but you're right, it would be a good double-bill. (I'd put "Midnight" last, for the same reason you always want vanilla after chocolate on your ice cream cone.)

2. It's my favorite movie poster of the year, a real eye-catcher. Even if Van Gogh isn't actually in the movie.

3. This may be the first time I've ever enjoyed Kathy Bates in anything.

Adam Zanzie said...

We're definitely in agreement on this one, Craig. An enjoyable movie, possibly even a return to form for Allen, with so much fun stuff happening that it's impossible to dismiss. I have to admit I haven't been all that attracted to the movies Allen's been releasing in the last five years: they've all sounded the same to me. I did manage to see Whatever Works back in '08, which I liked but wasn't too enthusiastic about (Ryan Kelly's fierce attack on it opened me up to some of its weakness); and somehow I never got around to seeing You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger because it sounded like more of the same. This movie was very pleasant though -- even if it's not quite on the level of brilliance of something as recent as Match Point.

Actually, there were times during this movie when I wondered if it *was* going to be some kind of comedy masterpiece, because it's such an entertaining flick from beginning to end. I guess I eventually soured a little on it when I realized Allen was up to his old tricks again in a few departments. The Tea Party gags had me rollicking in my seat until I realized that Gil's parents-in-law were basically supposed to be the bad, bad, bad Republicans; as much as Allen and I agree on politics, it seems cheap of him to fall on such a simplistic worldview. Same goes for McAdams' Inez: she's like the epitome of every woman who's ever made Allen's life hell (methinks he had Mia Farrow in mind when writing that character). Michael Sheen did pretty well with his part, although the arguments between him and Gil felt to me like Allen recycling the "pseudointellectualism" debates between himself and Diane Keaton from Manhattan. So, there were parts of the movie that made me wish Allen would consider adopting new kinds of targets in his films, since he's pretty much exhausted those other three by now.

What kept the movie fresh for me, though, was how he allowed that midnight world to come so vividly alive. It's like what James Cameron did with Pandora, only with a (much) smaller budget: he creates a universe to put his audience in for a little while. I almost wish the entire movie had been Gil stuck in the midnight world for one whole night, a la After Hours. But the Dali, Fitzgerald and Hemingway gags were all joyful, as was the Bunuel gag... although I must confess I got my Bunuel movies confused: I thought Gil was suggesting to Bunuel the premise for Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. When I realized he was actually talking about Exterminating Angel, I had to kick myself.

Also, speaking of Manhattan, it's pronounced Vincent Van "Gah" ;)

Craig said...

Thanks, Adam. This is one of those movies where I'm torn between praising what's onscreen and lamenting what's off. As it stands, Midnight in Paris is a beautifully constructed comedy. Like you, though, I think it could have been a classic had Allen taken his political conceits one step further by having Inez's family and Michael Sheen engage with the historical figures. Historical illiteracy being the underlying point -- both in the movie and in reality -- I think it could have been really something.

I see Sheen's character as a throwback to Annie Hall: physically, he resembles Tony Roberts; intellectually, he's like the twit in the movie line yammering about Marshall McLuhan. It would have been priceless to see him debate Hemingway about the facts of his own life: "No, sorry, you're wrong about that..."

Sam Juliano said...

"The best Woody Allen movie in years!" seems to be the response to every other Woody Allen movie these days. But the critics seemed to mean it this time, following a successful premiere at Cannes."

Indeed Craig. This was also the critical position on VICKY CRISTINA BARCELONA, which seems to stand apart from recent Woodman releases. I gave MIDNIGHT a 3.5 of 5 rating, and like it well enough, especially the sensory elements like the rain falling on Paris streets. My main problem was the Owen Wilson character, who seemed much too bumbling to convince as a writer. (I know you bought him, and therein lies the different in opinion) The film was comparatively lightweight, and the humor was typically intermittant in a film that divides its focus. I do think I need to see it a second time to reach a firmer position, but oddly enough, the critically maligned WHATEVER WORKS was a better first view Woodman among recent films.

But I know MIDNIGHT has received superlative reviews, so I'm sitting on the outside looking in. Beautifully written and persuasive essay here!

Matt S. said...

I finally got around to seeing the movie, so I was finally able to read your review. Great stuff, and it articulated most of what I felt, though I think I felt it a tinge less enthusiastically. Forgive my auteurist slant to this comment, but this was one of the rare films where I felt that Allen really has matured a bit. Contrast Midnight in Paris to The Purple Rose of Cairo: in the earlier film, the heroine decides to stick with the real world and reject the fantasy, and she's punished for it. In the newer film, the hero rejects the fantasy and is rewarded for it. Both films are very, very good, and I think the gut punch of Purple Rose is more potent than the end of Paris, but it's rare for Allen to go for an unabashedly optimistic ending that feels earned and meant to be taken completely seriously. The fact that he uses his nostalgic fantasy to make peace with the complications of the present feels like a sort of culmination that has built up for years, after having spent so much time with Allen protagonists who are continually looking backward.

So count me as one of those who totally bought into Wilson in the role. As you said, if Allen himself had played it, it might have curdled the effect. Allen is capable of moments of disarming sweetness, but Wilson's more genial, fragile persona fits this role (and the effect to which it's used) much better. It's also a just plain great performance. The scene where he silently decides to just go with it, coupled with that scene in front of the laundromat, show an actor in full possession of facial expression and body language.

As you said, the biggest weakness of the film was wasting such great supporting actors on such one-dimensional parts as Inez's family. Though I laughed the hardest at that gag showing the fate of the private detective who took a wrong turn somewhere. Too bad it couldn't have been Sheen.

Craig said...

Thanks, Matt. For the sake of splitting hairs down to the nub, I'd call the ending more hopeful than optimistic. I like that you consider it more mature than "Purple Rose" - many would probably say the opposite - but it's always tricky to put labels on Allen. His next movie could be downright bitter. I'm not sure that he ever truly evolves so much as shows different facets of his personality, the same facets he's had all along. Still, his tour of continental Europe seems to be doing him some good.