When Woody Allen allows his imagination to run free, he makes the most enjoyable movies you’ll see. For sheer creativity, his new film Midnight in Paris falls into the same bunch as Sweet and Lowdown, Mighty Aphrodite and Zelig. Yet Midnight has a lighthearted romanticism, even a positivity, that is rarely seen in his other films. This is Woody’s best movie since Match Point, and his most fun since Bullets Over Broadway.
Owen Wilson plays Gil, a screenwriter disillusioned with Hollywood, who visits Paris with his fiancee Inez (Rachel McAdams) and her parents. Gil loves Paris and is in love with its romantic history of writers and artists, particularly the Lost Generation of the 1920’s. Inez, obviously a bad match for him, thinks Paris is “cheesy”, and prefers to live in Malibu. She likes money and the things it can do and has no interest in Gil’s desire to write a novel.
As their differences – and Inez’s parents – pull them apart, Gil finds himself wandering the streets of Paris alone each night. But he’s not wandering the Paris of 2010; instead, he paints the town red with the likes of Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway and Salvador Dali in the 1920’s. At the chime of midnight each night, a 20’s style automobile pulls up and takes Gil to house parties, clubs, and bars to hang out with the flappers, drinkers, and artists of the era. Woody never declares whether this time travel is supposed to be real or Gil’s imagination, but the charm of the movie calls for such ambiguity.
The theme of the movie is the romantic mindset. Throughout the film, Gil is mocked and belittled for his unrealistic, romantic views of Paris and the era of the 1920’s, which Gil insists was a better time than the present. Not surprisingly for an Allen picture, the antagonists are Paul, a “pedantic pseudo-intellectual”, and Inez’s parents, “right-wing conservative nut jobs”. Both are completely incapable of comprehending Gil’s imagination and romantic feelings. Paul declares that Gil’s longing for the 20’s is a self-defense mechanism “for those who cannot face the troubles of the present”. Inez’s father has Gil followed by a private investigator.
Allen has several self-referencing lines, which feel like they describe his mindset during the writing of the script. Gil, a screenwriter, declares that writing screenplays is easy, but he wants to write “real literature”. He also scolds himself for being too literal, declaring that he needs to be more imaginative. And of course, Woody loves Paris. And the French love him back. The most romantic thing in the film is Woody Allen’s romancing of Paris. Nobody with anything less than a large dose of romanticized affection could make this movie.
The representation of the famous personages of the 1920’s borders on caricature, but in a way that reflects Gil’s opinion of them. If this is Gil’s version of 1920’s Paris, then of course the artists will be the people Gil has pictured them to be, based on their artwork, their biographies, and his imagination. Hemingway is gruff and speaks in apocryphal, clipped sentences. Dali is bigger than life and cannot help grandly announcing his name over and over. “I am… Dali! Dali!”
But the most impressive element of the film is Owen Wilson. The whiny numbskull act that sometimes derails his characters is completely absent. His natural voice for comedic timing is dead-on, and the “sad eyes” that Dali observes are a reflection of the defeated tone that Wilson harbors through much of the film. Woody knew he had to cast a lovable… I almost said “loser” here, but that is exactly what he is not. Lovable romantic is more like it, one who marches to his own drummer. And nobody does that better than Wilson.
As a long time Woody Allen fan, I am extremely and happily surprised at how fun it was to see Midnight in Paris. Whatever caustic thoughts were running through his head over the last few years seems to have taken a back seat while writing this one. And like Mark Twain said,”Write about what you know”. And nobody knows romanticized, wishful thinking more than Woody.