In the good old days, we criticized new Woody Allen movies for not living up to the early funny ones. Then we criticized them for not living up to the late serious ones. Now it’s less a matter of living up than keeping up. Allen goes on cranking them out and we go on calling them his best in years or his worst, barely having time to bicker over how many years and what are the best-worst benchmarks before he’s back in preproduction. In any case, he’s an old man now, and his golden age is unanimously (if cruelly) understood to be behind him.
It’s easy, therefore, to accept the 75-year-old writer-director as a good-humored nostalgist, who understands the basic problem with nostalgia: There’s no future in it. Arguably that knowledge has embittered Allen before, but in “Midnight in Paris,” a deceptively light comedy, his tone is most agreeable. He’s struck a balance between ruefulness and a romping good time.
Gil Pender (Owen Wilson) is a successful Hollywood screenwriter who calls himself a hack and thinks he’d rather be a novelist. Gil can afford a luxe Paris vacation with his spoiled fiancée Inez (Rachel McAdams) and the drolly dreary pair of rich right-winger parents (Mimi Kennedy and Kurt Fuller) who spoiled her, but he can’t necessarily manage it. To Gil’s family’s dismay, Paris puts a spell on him. He keeps trying to get Inez to go for romantic city walks in the rain, but she’d rather be shopping and controlling. He confesses that he’s tempted not to go home, that he’d rather stay here and be a proper expat writer like they did back in the day, and like he’d hoped to once before. “Do you really want to give it all up just to struggle?” Inez responds, briefly nearing actual sympathy. Then her highly pompous old professor friend (Michael Sheen) arrives and makes Gil feel even more out of his element.
Wilson, a strangely surfer-dudeish nebbish, makes an intriguing addition to the ongoing parade of Allen alter egos. If each new lead player tests the universality of the Allen type, and this one implies an endangered species, that just works to the movie’s advantage. Wilson’s dreamy melancholy is well deployed here, with sincerity and softer edges than the on-screen Allen ever had.
And so our hero, whose novel in progress is about the owner of a nostalgia shop, finds himself alone on glinting Parisian cobblestones at a moment past midnight. When a 1920s-era Peugeot pulls up and its dapper passengers offer him a ride, he is ready to accept. When they turn out to be Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald (Tom Hiddleston, Alison Pill), he’s all in. Of course we can see where this is going. It’s been done, by Allen himself a few times already, and by others before him — before movies, for that matter, which might be the point. Novelty, after all, is just another face of the nostalgia trap. Modern really is the new old-fashioned.
Gil’s view of Paris in the ’20s, to quote Allen’s introduction to his own “Manhattan,” romanticizes it all out of proportion. And that’s the wistful beauty of it. (That, plus the tender tandem glamorizing of Anne Seibel’s production design and Darius Khondji’s cinematography.) Memorable new friends include Corey Stoll as Ernest Hemingway, Adrien Brody as Salvador Dalí and Kathy Bates as Gertrude Stein, each with deep delights and useful advice to impart.
And then there is Marion Cotillard as Adriana, a resident muse who takes special interest in Gil, and even shares his interests. If he doesn’t seem to mind that before him she was with Modigliani and Picasso and Hemingway too, it’s probably because he’s flattered by the evident refinement of her taste. Adriana says he seems lost and he takes it as a compliment, like you do when the apparent official mistress to the Lost Generation looks at you with eyes like those. And anyway, she thinks the real day to be back in was the Belle Epoque. Naturally, Gauguin and Degas soon are on hand saying no, actually, it was the Renaissance. That’s just how “Midnight in Paris” rolls.
“The people who live in a golden age,” Randall Jarrell wrote in 1958, “usually go around complaining how yellow everything looks.” And what other mainstream (if willfully parochial) director would we trust to make an entertaining movie out of that? It’s true that Allen’s intellectual lyricism has given way to pragmatism over the years, but it takes real craftsmaship to give such graceful nods to Surrealism and science fiction without bogging down in genre clutter or losing your own voice. It takes chutzpah, at any age, to make a cozy forlorn comedy about giving up illusions and indulging them.
Generally the jokes in “Midnight in Paris” seem neither too inside nor too obvious. (Film geeks should consider the Luis Buñuel bit very well played.) The flaws are only mildly irksome. It is a little hard to buy Gil as a screenwriter or a novelist, but it’s easy to recognize him as an enthusiastic cultural tourist. The hint of sycophancy (French First Lady Carla Bruni plays a museum tour guide), the sometimes too-deliberate dialogue, the occasional caricatures (Americans, mostly) all should serve as insurance of perspective kept. Really the only thing to be mad at this movie for, with all its references to boxing and Cubism, is setting up and squandering so many good opportunities for a comment on Wilson’s crooked nose.
So yes, “Midnight in Paris” amounts merely to a vivid and poignant post-card souvenir. But oh wow, post cards. Remember those?