2011 // Spain - USA // Director: Woody Allen // June 19, 2011 // Theatrical Print (Hi-Pointe Theater)
Vacationing in the City of Lights with his fiancé and her parents, an idealistic but adrift American writer wanders Paris' streets during the wee hours and unwittingly stumbles back in time to the 1920s. In short order, he is gleefully rubbing shoulders with his Lost Generation idols--F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Cole Porter, Gertrude Stein, Pablo Picasso--not to mention falling hard for a sultry beauty, all of which confirms his long-held suspicions that he was born too late. In the hands of another filmmaker, the wistful premise of Midnight in Paris would be the stuff of pleasurable but forgettable romantic fantasy fluff. In the hands of Woody Allen, it is a film that is shamefully luscious in its aesthetic and almost childlike in its gaping adoration of a bygone time and place. It is also bittersweet and conflicted in its heart, further affirming that even the gorgeous vistas of Europe's great cities--so prominent in the director's current period--are not enough to quell Allen's sheepish, sardonic rumblings.
To be sure, the venerable writer-director is unabashedly besotted with the delectable, airy qualities of this time-tripping fable. Allen's improbable romanticism still endures, and finds its expression in the glowing, picture-postcard cinematography of both present and past from Johanne Debas and Darius Khondji (their first collaboration with the director), and in the giddy enthusiasm of time traveler Gil (Owen Wilson) as he drinks wine and dances the Charleston with the likes of Salvador Dalí and T.S. Eliot. Needless to say, that enthusiasm doesn't last forever, and Midnight in Paris is in part an acidic refutation of the Golden Age fallacy. Lest there be any confusion on this point, a pompous intellectual (Michael Sheen) articulates the problem of said fallacy for Gil's (and, presumably, the audience's) edification.
Strictly speaking, Midnight isn't science fiction, or even a science fiction satire in the vein of Allen's own Sleeper, as it spends little time explicating the principles of Gil's almost effortless forays back and forth across the decades. Of course, even the best time travel films--Back to the Future, 12 Monkeys, Time After Time--aren't exactly doctoral dissertations on quantum physics, but Midnight elides almost everything except the trigger for our hero's temporal shifts. Gil must be standing at the foot of a particular staircase at midnight, whereupon a vintage Peugeot pull up to whisk him away to a night of Roaring Twenties pleasures. The film plays the actual mechanics of time travel for dry laughs, but the primary focus is on the characters' responses to this unlikely wrinkle in the fabric of reality. The effusive, faintly naïve Gil doesn't really care about the "why" or "how," but does what any writer would do in his situation: He pounces on the opportunity to ask Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates) to read and critique the manuscript of his first novel.
The dramatic arc of the film is straightforward to the point of predictability: Gil falls briefly, passionately in love with the 1920s, only to be disillusioned and return home with a new appreciation for the present. Interestingly, Allen elects to double-down on the strangeness in the third act, and in the process provides a tidy and gratifying rationale for a sudden about-face in his protagonist's worldview. Wilson is pitch-perfect in the lead, blending a gee-whiz affability with the wry, muttering prickliness that he favors in Wes Anderson's films. His presence sets the tone for the film--drunk on the richness of life, yet keenly aware of its maddening, necessary boundaries--and establishes Midnight as one of the the funniest Allen films in years. Perhaps the smartest and most vital component to the film's humor is that everyone else plays their roles utterly straight, from Rachel McAdams as Gil's annoyed fiance to Corey Stall as a swaggering, chiseled Hemingway who is prone to hilariously grave monologues. Allen manages a heartfelt genuflection to the cultural titans of the twentieth century, while also poking them square in the eye. It's a marvelous trick.