REVIEW: 'Midnight in Paris'

I seem to be on a bit of reviewing kick over the past few posts. Doesn’t matter – I have a bigger problem to address. Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, which I saw a few days ago at a cool vintage theatre, is actually the first Woody Allen movie I’ve ever seen. It might sound sacrilegious coming from an avowed movie buff like myself, but for one reason or another, the majority of Allen’s work has passed me by.

Given my experience with Midnight in Paris, I can see no reason not to go back and catch up on his previous films. Read on for my full review!

Midnight is the same sort of thoughtful, fantastical stroll through the City of Love that Owen Wilson’s character Gil embarks on each night in the film. It takes us back to earlier, maybe even better, times in the city, filled with artistic inspiration from the likes of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Picasso, but also brings a useful lesson about the pitfalls of nostalgia.

The film opens with an eyeful of Parisian scenery, in a sequence of establishing shots that spans across an entire day in the city. In this way, the film doesn’t rush to introduce us to its characters, and sets a leisurely pace that persists for the rest of the movie.

Owen Wilson and Rachel McAdams play Gil and Inez.

When we do meet the leads, they are a pair of soon-to-be married American tourists, Gil (Owen Wilson), a Hollywood screenwriter, and Inez (Rachel McAdams), out for a walk in the garden that inspired many of Claude Monet’s famous paintings of water lilies. While Gil is already in love with Paris (especially the Lost Generation of the 1920s), and wants to relocate here to work on his in-progress novel, Inez believes that France is a dull passing fancy.

Gil grows tired of the shopping trips and tourist-y attractions that Inez wants to visit, and starts going out for late-night walks through the city. One night, he gets lost in a Paris side-street at midnight and hitches a ride with a couple dressed in 1920s attire, driving in a period car. Gil accompanies them to a ritzy bar that looks like it was ripped from Lost Generation Paris, but soon realizes that he might have actually tumbled through time. Enamoured by the chance to hang out with his literary heroes, Gil returns to the 1920s each night, meeting a colourful cast of characters who inspire him to re-evaluate his life.

Aside from the beautiful photography (accomplished cinematographer Darius Khondji worked on the film), I was struck by the two elements that people always mention about Woody Allen films: the writing and acting. Allen’s script is smart and funny, and the characters are easy to “get to know”. Gil is believable as a writer, and Inez seems very familiar as that sort of person who only has a fleeting appreciation for the finer things in life. Inez’s parents are the expected ignorant Americans, but not stereotypically so: like all the characters, we learn enough about them that they don’t come off as caricatures.

My favourite part of this movie was the appearances by the 1920s (and later, 1890s) figures. Corey Stoll is brash and brooding as Hemingway, Kathy Bates puts in a comforting performance as Gertrude Stein, and Adrien Brody had me in stitches as Salvador Dalí. Even in a movie featuring long-dead artists and writers, Allen is able to inject a number of great one-liners. I loved Hemingway’s random query, “Have you ever shot a lion?!” and Dali’s constant talk of rhinoceroses. If you’re at all familiar with the culture or personalities from this period, you’ll get a kick out of these sequences.

Corey Stoll as Ernest Hemingway and Adrien Brody as Salvador Dali

Midnight in Paris adopts the outlook of Gil, in that it doesn’t rush its story to the next event. There is no unnatural climax in the style of many Hollywood films. There aren’t any high stakes, other than the happiness of the characters. The film is all about the quiet contemplation of years gone by, but it also warns against getting too caught up in the past. Gil’s trips through time are magical and addictive, and he must decide if the nostalgia is worth abandoning his modern life, even if it doesn’t match the splendour of 1920s Paris.

From a logistical perspective, I liked how Allen didn’t try to explain the time travel element. Whether or not Gil is dreaming or insane or actually visiting 1920s Paris clubs and homes is not addressed. The characters have their own ideas about how Gil is having these experiences, but we aren't given a specific definition of what is going on, and it works. The time traveling is effortless and unobtrusive: an old-fashioned car shows up and Gil gets in – no effects of any kind. Of all things, it reminded me of Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes. Watterson never defines the true nature of Calvin’s stuffed tiger friend Hobbes; whether Hobbes coming to life is imaginary or not simply doesn’t matter to the story.

Complementing the varied characters and refined imagery is a soundtrack that flows along with the pace of the movie, with overlapping strains of Parisian accordion, vintage swing and classical, as if all the musical genres that grew in the city are spilling into one other. Just like the events of the film, the soundtrack builds on the experience of walking through Paris’ streets and feeling like a denizen of all the centuries of Parisian history.

My only complaint about the film is a comment that, again, accompanies many Woody Allen films. Midnight in Paris is a delightful confection, but that also means that it doesn’t have the memorable punch of a movie that will go on to become a classic. Like many vacations to Paris, it is what it is to the people who see it. The problems of the characters are neatly resolved, and we’re not left with any lingering questions. Still, the intelligent dialogue, measured pace and artful presentation earns Midnight in Paris three and a half stars out of four.

Have you seen Midnight in Paris? If you’re a Woody Allen fan, how does it measure up to his early work, or to his other European-set pictures? Let me know what you think in the comments section down below. If you’d like to catch up on my recent movie reviews, check out my Reviews of Classic Movies series, or my reviews of recent films!

Reviews of Classic Movies:

The Graduate (1967)Rope (1948) | 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

Recent 2011 Releases:

Super 8 | Eco-Pirate: The Story of Paul Watson | Rise of the Planet of the Apes