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.