BY: Manori Ravindran
Starring Owen Wilson, Rachel McAdams and Marion Cotillard. Directed by Woody Allen. 100 minutes. PG
I can’t express how often I wish I was born in another era. For me, it’s the sixties in the U.S., with the dreamy allure of Bob Dylan, the Civil Rights movement and the Merry Pranksters. In Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, struggling novelist Gil similarly yearns for another time: in his case, Paris in the 1920s. In this sweet and astute film about the trouble of wanting to be somewhere you’re not, Allen channels observations about a restless society into one of his best films to date.
Owen Wilson is Gil, a successful Hollywood screenwriter who’s trying his hand at writing novels. Visiting Paris with his fiancée Inez (Rachel McAdam) and her family, it becomes clear that his betrothed doesn’t share his interest in the city’s mystique. When Inez reunites with old friends, including hilarious one-upper Paul (Michael Sheen), Gil has a lot of time on his hands and takes to wandering the streets at night.
One evening, after getting into a car with beckoning strangers at the stroke of midnight, Gil finds he’s been taken back in time to the 1920s. Suddenly, he’s rubbing elbows with his literary heroes and falling for Picasso’s mistress Adriana (Marion Cotillard). Much to the bewilderment of Inez, who is increasingly distant, Gil continues to wander off each evening, choosing fantasy over the reality of an ill-suited relationship. But as he goes further back in time, he soon realizes that even the most idyllic past can be someone else’s dreary present.
For those unfamiliar with Allen’s body of work, the director has almost annually churned out a feature film, television short or play since 1959. Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, that Midnight in Paris warrants comparison to 1985’s The Purple Rose of Cairo, another film where wistful characters are drawn into their fantasies, which provide only fleeting respite from reality.
Midnight works on many levels. Unlike many of his more recent films, there’s no bumbling, neurotic male lead. Sure, Gil’s intelligent, but he’s no intellectual, and the particular casting of the laid-back Wilson makes for a character that’s likeable from the very start. A strong supporting cast of McAdams, whose mean streak re-emerges in a turn as the petulant Inez, and Sheen, as her tedious charmer, is terrific. Allen also challenges the audience to a battle of wits, introducing a bevy of literary and artistic icons to keep us guessing. As usual, the director doesn’t underestimate his audience, and expects us to keep pace with the many arcane references that constitute the average Woody Allen film.
Ultimately, what’s most appealing about Midnight in Paris is that it draws upon the nostalgia most of us feel for the past, whether it’s our own or a different time period entirely. Allen allows us to live out our fantasies through Gil, who gets a real shot at his. Best of all, the director balances each dose of make believe and real life without getting ensconced in either. The past and present of Midnight in Paris aren’t separate entities; instead, they affect one another drastically.
For Woody Allen fans who’ve been sleepwalking through the director’s last few films, Midnight in Paris is a brilliant reminder of why it is we blindly subscribe to his genius. And for newcomers who just want to see a romantic comedy on a Tuesday night, it may be the start of a beautiful relationship. A