“Midnight In Paris” Review

          We’ve all talked about it, hell, a number of us have even taken some of those annoying Facebook quizzes giving us the answers: would life be better if we lived some time in the past?  We’ve all heard people say that they should have been born in Ancient Greece, the 1800’s, or even the 1920’s.  We all wonder what life was really like.  Woody Allen gives us that chance to see in his new film “Midnight In Paris”.

          “Midnight In Paris” is a tame homage to the French capital city that is so dear to Allen’s heart.  But in his own words: “I wanted to show the city emotionally … the way I saw Paris – Paris through my eyes.”  And Allen does so with much adoration.  The opening montage of the film is several minutes long and almost sickeningly extravagant; it left me a little impatient, mumbling, “Alright!  We get it already: Paris is bloody brilliant!” (yes, I’m British when in film critic mode).  The sprawling streets, the quiet cafes, and the majestic boulevards show us a Paris that functions as Allen’s much-loved muse. 

           After the initial pomp, the remainder of the film is toned down slightly and is nothing short of delightful.  Gil Pender (Owen Wilson) is a Hollywood screenwriter who never gave novel writing – or Paris for that matter – the chance that he wished he had in younger years.  He’s successful, with a gorgeous albeit shallow Inez (Rachel McAdams) as his fiancée, and he is vacationing in one of the most beautiful cities in the world, yet remains, as far too many artists do, largely dissatisfied with his accomplishments.  The roguishly charming and only slightly awkward Wilson is a perfect fit for the frustrated yet enthusiastic Gil.  In fact, it’s refreshing to see Wilson in a serious role.

          Before long, we find that poor company only adds to Gil’s disillusionment: Gil’s in-laws, also along for the trip, are grossly American and irritatingly hyper-conservative.  The mother spouts mantras like “Cheap is cheap” and the father constantly complains that the food is “too rich”.  Gil, ever the Francophile, just wants some quiet time to work on his novel and to wander the majestic streets of Paris, a plan that is thwarted even further when Inez’s insufferable former crush from college, Paul (Michael Sheen), shows up with his own wife.  Paul is pompous, pedantic, and spends all of his screen time speaking with great authority on everything from French wine to the mistresses of Picasso, when in reality he is little more than a pseudo-intellectual.  Paul’s obnoxious behavior gives us some of the funniest moments in the whole movie.

          It is when Paul suggests that the two couples go out dancing when the movie literally turns magical.  Frustrated by the lack-luster company, Gil rejects the offer and instead opts to wander the streets of Paris by himself.  At the stroke of midnight, he is beckoned into an old-fashioned car that whisks him off to an extravagant party.  Before long, he is chatting with Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald while Cole Porter plucks and sings songs at the piano.  Gil’s wish has been granted and he is able to experience Paris in the 1920’s.

          Before long, his time traveling is a nightly occurrence, and he meets more and more prominent historical figures.  Ernest Hemingway (Corey Stoll) gives him writerly advice, Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates) reads his manuscript for him, and Gil even discusses his curious predicament with Salvador Dali (Adrien Brody).  But the most important person in the story is ironically one of the few fictitious characters that pops up in 1920’s Paris: the lovely and captivating Adriana (Marion Cotillard), whom Gil meets in the house of Gertrude Stein.

          Marion Cotillard has gone from a haunting rabble-rouser in “Inception” to positively enchanting in “Midnight In Paris”.  Instead of shanking Juno in dreams, she’s stealing the hearts of nearly every Golden Age artist from Picasso to Hemingway.  Gil is right to exclaim, “You take art groupie to a whole new level!”  Initially, Gil seems like he might be another notch on her artist-gobbling belt, but she is equally as captivated by him as he is by her.  Their romance develops at a gradual pace and is (to steal a phrase from a fellow journalist and dear friend) “unbelievably believable”.    As the time-crossed lovers fall for each other, Gil begins to question his life in the 21st century and starts to lose focus on what his reality should be.

          Ultimately, Gil has to come to grips with the fallacy of nostalgia, the notion that everyone at some point becomes convinced that life in the past was better than it is today.  While that theme might seem a little obvious considering the plot of the film, it’s executed in a subtly enjoyable way that, even if fantastic, somehow feels natural and cathartic.  We’ve all got to realize that even if our hearts might yearn that we were children again or that we could walk the streets of Paris with Fitzgerald, London with Shakespeare, or Florence with Dante, it is in the here and now that we can make a difference.  Only we can make our time and our culture into one that generations from now will long for.  So take a page out of Gil’s book: move to Paris, fall in love, and a write a book about it that will define our generation.  And if you do manage to travel through time, do your best to stay out of trouble.