Once upon a time, Woody Allen made films like Annie Hall, which featured his angst-ridden but lovable persona, was brilliant yet accessible, and won four Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Original Screenplay (Diane Keaton also won for Best Actress). The world loved Woody Allen.
Then commenced a long period of growth, during which Allen sometimes imitated Ingmar Bergman and Federico Fellini, and also made some more masterpieces like Hannah and Her Sisters and Crimes and Misdemeanors. The world still liked him, but the warmth was now slightly confounded.
As the current century began, Allen made movies like Anything Else, Hollywood Ending, and Melinda and Melinda. Few saw them, and those who did generally wished that Woody Allen would return to making adorable comedies like Annie Hall.
There’s a beloved scene in Annie Hall in which Allen and Keaton are waiting in line in a movie theater, directly in front of a pretentious academic type who loudly spouts his opinions of Fellini and Marshall McLuhan. Because it is a movie, Allen is able to produce McLuhan himself to shoot down the pundit’s assertions.
Of course, if he were setting out to make a lovable movie like Annie Hall these days, Woody Allen would be too old to play the leading man. He would have to use a surrogate — somebody like, say, Owen Wilson.
Where New York City served almost as a costar in Annie Hall, some other great world capitol — Paris, for example — could be featured.
As for Marshall McLuhan, well, he died in 1980 — but why let that be an obstacle? This is a movie, after all. You can bring back long-dead geniuses of any era. Just think of all the famous writers and artists who flocked together in Paris during the 1920s!
This is Midnight in Paris.
Owen Wilson stars as Gil Pender, a Hollywood screenwriter with a taste for nostalgia who has yet to realize his greater artistic ambitions. Rachel McAdams (Wedding Crashers) plays Inez, his materialistic and status-conscious fiancée. They are visiting Paris with Inez’s wealthy, conservative parents. Once there, they run into Inez’s friend Paul (Michael Sheen), a self-styled authority on culture in general, including that of Paris. Paul pompously lavishes his dubious knowledge on the others and Inez eats it up, much to Gil’s frustration.
The magical Marshall McLuhan moment is expanded to take up the majority of this movie, and I won’t go into detail except to say that it is very nicely done, and this makes Midnight in Paris worth watching. The film’s question — about whether any “golden age” was really so golden to those actually living through it — is a convenient premise on which to drape the fantasy, nothing more.
What the movie lacks is any kind of Diane Keaton.
Instead, we get Marion Cotillard as Adriana. Beyond her general attractiveness and suppressed discontent, the script gives no reason for Gil to be as smitten with her as he instantly becomes. At least two other beautiful women, former French First Lady Carla Bruni and Léa Seydoux, are also shown to exist in the greater Paris area.
Paris itself is unsatisfying, despite a gorgeous opening montage of the city by cinematographer Darius Khondji. The locations and sets look good enough, but the atmosphere, the language, and the music are too American — almost as if you were to visit a recreated Paris in Las Vegas or Orlando. (For a much better sense of the city, see Cédric Klapisch’s 2008 film.)
In the long run, I think the lesson is not that the glory days weren’t really so glorious, but that you simply cannot go back there.
Thanks to its central fantasy, Midnight in Paris is an entertaining 94 minutes, and I rate it three stars out of four. However, I would much rather see Woody Allen make a movie about how life feels to him now, adorable or not.