Woody Allen has managed to write and direct a film a year for almost every year since 1969. He's a remarkably prolific filmmaker and a talent often deservingly revered by cinephiles and comedy writers. When your resume is as extensive as Allen's is, people like to start breaking your work into 'periods.' Early vs. late, comedies vs. dramas, New York stories vs. European stories, films starring you vs. films you're notably absent in, etc. Tell someone you've just seen Midnight in Paris and the next question will be either "was it better or worse than Vicky Cristina Barcelona?" or "how does it compare to the early work?" Perhaps we draw comparisons because Allen's writing style is so much his own, and because the protagonists are generally just Allen in varying degrees of luminosity. So it is. The answers as I see them are "it's as good, but in a completely different category" and "it's doubtful anything will ever top Manhattan and Annie Hall for me personally, but it ranks high in the oeuvre." I mean it, too. I loved Midnight in Paris. I loved it the way one loves a dessert that's just rich enough, a novel you find yourself tearing through in hours, or a dream so good you think about it through lunch time. As a comedy it's an absolute delight, as a fantasy it's every literary nerd or Francophile's secret wish.
Owen Wilson finds his stride as Gil, a writer in love with the romance of Paris in the 1920's who happens to be traveling with his fiance Inez (Rachel McAdams) and her parents, who together form a tiresome clan of waspy Americans burnt out on the "tackiness" of nearly everything abroad. A chance run-in with Inez's pedantic old college crush (Michael Sheen) offers Gil a chance to explore the city on his own and he takes it, wandering the streets and losing himself for hours until the clock strikes midnight, a car pulls up on the narrow road, and an eccentric bunch of party goers invite him to come aboard. We take in their costumes, their affected behavior, their cigarette holders and flare for language and at first we're inclined to think along the same line as Gil: "oh yes, I know these people. These are the college aesthetes who had Bright Young Things parties at university. They're the would be Sebastian Flytes who grew up to have money and play at immersing themselves in yesteryear." We're inclined to think that, but the beauty of this fantasy is that it's not so. Midnight in Paris is a bit of magic realism, it time travels literally and has a heart which beats for all things slightly tarnished or well-worn. Gil is gifted a chance to realize his deepest desires. He hobnobs with the entire make-up of the Lost Generation, becoming just another American creative milling about Paris in the 20's. He tries to reason with Zelda Fitzgerald, convinces Gertrude Stein to take a look at his 2010 manuscript, seeks advice from Hemingway, attends parties thrown in honor of Jean Cocteau, and interacts with a ridiculously impressive laundry list of cameos, allusions, and insider jokes. Within the vortex, he connects with a muse deftly portrayed by Marion Cotillard, and I would be remiss not to mention that their relationship is mined for pure gold; fueling Gil's joy and the film's central thesis in equal measure.
I could gush about Midnight in Paris for hours and would, at this juncture in 2011, point to it as probably the most persuasive argument for book smart, clean, old fashioned comedy in cinema to come along in awhile. The dialogue, the interactions, the experience and bubbling excitement is so perfectly formed, so sparklingly clear that we identify with Gil almost immediately whether we share his convictions or not. We're in awe, and we love what we're seeing as much as he does. Woody is on his game here, stuffing each minute on screen with enough breezy charm and exacting wit that the result is something positively effortless. He's cast Owen Wilson as his proxy almost perfectly, and the actor is given a chance to shine that too often escapes him outside of those too-rare collaborations with Wes Anderson. Wilson is likable, exuberant, and visibly in love with the film as well as its characters. He spits his dialogue in a way that feels natural and off the cuff, honest and with a sunny integrity. We side with him. We want him to get whatever it is that will keep him this happy. We want to go forth with him into the bistros and cafes and rub elbows with the larger than life figures that cast their shadows over our high school literature courses. It doesn't matter that at times the characters speak in broad cliches or stilted language. You can imagine them doing so. Nor does it matter that the whole story is constructed around a piece of fluffy fancy. This isn't about logic, it's about losing oneself. English majors with minors in film: this moveable feast is all for us.