Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Midnight in Paris

Woody Allen is as in love with Paris as he is New York. Perhaps even more. His 2010 MIDNIGHT IN PARIS opens with a 3 minute plus travelogue that highlights many of the most famous spots in the City of Lights. It reminded me of the opening of 1979's MANHATTAN, though this time sans Gershwin (there is Sidney Bechet) or voiceover. I especially enjoyed this montage as I had traversed these scenes last year on my first ever trip to Europe. I had many such moments during this movie.

As in some of his previous, Allen does not appear in the film but rather has an actor channel his famous neuroses. Owen Wilson plays Gil, a possibly talented scribe who's made a living cranking out formuleic Hollywood pap while dreaming of composing the Great American Novel. I'll bet many screenwriters in Los Angeles secretly sneer at the work they turn in while fancying themselves a Faulkner or at least a Jonathan Franzen. Gil is vacationing in France with his grating fiancee, Inez, (Amy McAdams) and her wealthy parents (Kurt Fuller, Mimi Kennedy). Within minutes you'll rightly wonder how Gil and Inez ever stayed together: he's a romantic who likes to walk in the rain and wants to relocate to Paris for good; she's a pragmatist on whom the very essence of the magic of Paris is lost, and is quite content with living in Malibu.

Inez's mother likes art and antiques only because they are expensive; her father is an "Ugly American" Tea-Party conservative. At one point, after Inez believes a chambermaid stole her jewelry, says to Gil, "You always take the side of the help. That's why Daddy says you're a communist!" As you can see, the characterizations Allen creates are paper thin, possibly with no more depth than a Playboy cartoon panel or even a Saturday Night Live skit, and will not hold up to scrutiny; that can describe the entire film.

Eventually, Gil tires of the boorish family and the arrival of Inez's ex-boyfriend, Paul (Michael Sheen), another in Allen's long line of aggravating pseudo-intellectuals who loves to endlessly pontificate on art and history (he reminded me a bit of Alan Alda's character from CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS). Gil makes excuses to skip outings to spend each evening alone strolling the ancient streets, meeting at midninght a mysterious antique cab filled with revelers in 1920s garb. People with names like F. Scott Fitzgerald and Cole Porter. Could they be...?

At a saloon he also meets Josephine Baker and none other than Ernest Hemingway, who asks him if he likes to box. Even Salvador Dali (Adrien Brody), Luis Bunuel, and T.S. Eliot show up! Gil is understandably aghast. Does he "need a neurologist"? After his initial disbelief, Gil finds himself intoxicated with discourse among these luminaries, finding that no less than Gertrude Stein (played by Kathy Bates) will even take time to read his novel in progress! This is after Hemingway turned him down: "If it's bad, I'll hate it. If it's good, then I'll be envious and hate it even more. You don't want the opinion of another writer."

If you are seeking an airtight scientific explanation for the time traveling or anything ressembling an accurate characterization of any of these historic figures, you've wandered into the wrong movie, mon ami.

Gil will later meet Pablo Picasso and his mistress Adriana (Marian Cotillard), with whom Gil becomes smitten. She entrances him with lofty words and a glowing beauty that matches the city around them. Through a series of interesting plot dynamics involving the 1920s and present day, Gil even tries to steal his fiancee's pearl earrings to give to Adrianna. His creative whims and heart are stirred by this "Golden Age" atmosphere, this curious dimension that Woody never tries to logic out, a correct approach. You may find yourself concluding that it's all in Gil's mind, but again, if thoughts like this invade your enjoyment of MIDNIGHT IN PARIS.....

This is a light as air, fluffy confection of a movie, but it wouldn't be a Woody without some sober analysis among the lush cinematography and old music. Dew eyed nostalgia is taken to (gentle) tasking. Paul, in a moment of genuine insight, explains, "Nostalgia is denial - denial of the painful present... the name for this denial is golden age thinking - the erroneous notion that a different time period is better than the one ones living in - its a flaw in the romantic imagination of those people who find it difficult to cope with the present." Gil will find that Adriana feels much the same of the 1920s as he feels of the 2010s, a point exemplified when the couple walks into Maxim's Paris of the 1890s. Gauguin and Degas, among others, are holding court. The young lady wants to remain here in the Belle Époque, an era Adrianna feels is the true Golden Age.

But things never get too serious or maudlin in MIDNIGHT IN PARIS. Bittersweet, yes. The best of Allen's comedic and dramatic trademarks are present throughout in this, his most enjoyable film since 2005's MATCH POINT. This includes his "wish I'd written that" dialogue, such when Gil, again awash in Paris-love, states: "What is it with this city? I need to write a letter to the Chamber of Commerce!"

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