Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Film Review: Midnight in Paris

"Midnight in Paris" *** 1\2 (out of ****)

Woody Allen's "Midnight in Paris" (2011) starts off with images of the streets of Paris as the great New Orleans jazz musician, Sidney Bechet (who lived in Paris in his last years) plays "Si tu vois ma mere" on the soundtrack.

It is a moment not unlike the opening montage in Allen's "Manhattan" (1979) where Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" plays over a collection of iconic New York images as Allen gives us a narration. Both films are a valentine to a city. Both films deal with men who idolize a city all out of proportion.

In "Midnight in Paris" Owen Wilson plays Gil, an American who has traveled to Paris with his fiancee, Inez (Rachel McAdams) and her parents (Kurt Fuller and Mimi Kennedy). Gil is a bit of an old soul. A man who wonders what Paris in the 1920s must have been like. A time when Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald rubbed elbows with Ernest Hemingway. A time when Cole Porter was writing songs like "Lets Fall in Love", "You've Got That Thing" and "You Do Something To Me". A time when Picasso and Salvador Dali painted masterpieces. All of this amazing culture in one city, in one time.

But not everyone shares in Gil's pleasure. For instance Inez thinks it is foolish to romanticize the past. Better to leave the past behind and live in the present. Though Gil is unable to. He wants to live in Paris and emulate his heroes, Fitzgerald and Hemingway. He wants to write a great American novel, whereas Inez wants to live in Malibu and demands Gil keep his job as a Hollywood screenwriter.

I'm not sure how much of a spoiler this will be, but just in case. If you have not heard about this film, if you have not seen it yet; SPOILER ALERT:

One night, while alone, and walking the street of Paris at midnight, Gil magically finds himself transported to 1920s Paris where he meets all of his idols. He has Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates) read his novel. Discusses literature with Hemingway (Corey Stoll) and Fitzgerald (Tom Hiddleston). He meets Dali (Adrian Brody) and speaks of love. And he meets Adriana (a fictitious character played by Marion Cotillard) a woman who serves as a muse to these great artist. She no doubt captures Gil's heart and inspires him. END SPOILER

The film plays with themes which have often been central in a Woody Allen film. Themes of fantasy vs reality and a longing for the past. Allen of course has given us such films as "Bullets Over Broadway" (1994) a valentine to 1920s America, and "Radio Days" (1987) a look back at Allen's childhood in the 1940s. But here Allen is his most forthcoming with this theme. And his offers a surprising message. Surprising because Allen contradicts his own message. That being, every generation perceives the past as being better than current times. Woody Allen makes films where characters discuss Hemingway and Cole Porter and classic jazz music plays in his films. Isn't Allen also living in the past?

I have now seen "Midnight in Paris" twice. The first time I saw it was opening day, several months ago. I liked the film, thought it was okay with some minor problems. Since that time many people have told me how much they enjoyed the movie. People who normally don't like Allen or see his films have sung the film's praises. What was wrong with me I thought. On paper the film sounds right up my alley. I too am an old soul. I idolize the past and feel I was born in the wrong times. I can very much so relate to the Gil character, but, "Midnight in Paris" didn't connect as strongly with me as I thought it would.

The film has turned out to be Allen's greatest achievement, in box-office terms, grossing more than $50 million dollars in the U.S. alone. It is still in theatres and so I thought I would check it out again. Make sure I hadn't missed something. Perhaps I was in the wrong mood the first time I saw the film. It turns out I was.

"Midnight in Paris" has grown on me after a second viewing. Much in my life has changed since I first saw this film. The idea of longing for the past, a time when things made sense, now strongly resonates with me. Within these past few months death and failed relationships have occupied my thoughts and filled my days. My grandmother passed away and a romantic relationship ended. In fact "Midnight in Paris" was the last film we saw together before our break-up. I thought about these things watching the film again.

In every Woody Allen film, which Allen has not casted himself, there is usually a character Allen himself would have played if he where younger and audiences didn't have a hostile attitude towards seeing him on-screen. Here it is the Gil character of course. Most actors who play this character usually do a Woody Allen impersonation. Wilson does this on a small scale with similar hand gestures and speech patterns but it is not annoying. A majority of critics have claimed Wilson gives the best performance of his career. Who knew he was capable of more than silly, gross out humor?

One of the problems I originally had with "Midnight in Paris" was I felt Allen didn't romanticize the time period. It felt like Allen wasn't sentimental towards the 1920s. The film didn't really feel magical in those moments. Another problem was I thought Allen is asking a lot of his audience. He is making some pretty big assumptions that today's audience knows who Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Dali and Cole Porter are. Those who know who these people are will get a kick out of the film, but, what about those who have never read Fitzgerald? Or those who have never heard a Cole Porter song? Will they like this movie? They might, they will clearly understand the basic concept of the film, but, will it tickle their fancy the same way it does for those of us who know who these people are?

I'm glad I saw "Midnight in Paris" again. In what has been a pretty good year for movies, Allen's film, is a standout. A wonderfully, rich experience. A film full of charm and tidbits of wisdom.