Woody Allen’s latest travelogue-cum-arthouse-truffle takes a jaunty turn down memory lane as a frustrated writer’s premarital trip to Paris whisks him away to headier times, when the likes of Fitzgerald, Faulkner and Picasso drank, smoked and danced the Charleston in the City of Lights. Like a swoony lost chapter from “Paris, je t’aime” agreeably extended to feature length, “Midnight in Paris” is so baldly smitten with its rain-slicked environs you half expect to see Paris’ tourism office listed among its backers. Yet and still, there’s an undeniably populist appeal, light as meringue and twice as sweet, in the pic’s arm’s-reach sophistication.
Though the film’s time-traveling secret was kept under wraps pre-Cannes, Sony Pictures Classics would do well to embrace it before releasing the pic on May 20 in the U.S. The device itself kicks in just as the second reel is picking up speed, injecting the right dash of magic into what might otherwise have been another of Allen’s flouncy Euro-chic getaways. The plot itself has the simplicity of fable, with nostalgia-stricken scribbler Gil Pender (Owen Wilson) getting a unique chance to pal around with his ’20s-era idols at the expense of being able to embrace the promise of his own era.
Like many an Allen protag, Gil doubts his own intellect. Part stuttering stand-in for the director, part shallow West Coast caricature, Gil specializes in screenplays, but aspires to putting his name on a novel. He’s written one about a fellow who yearns for an earlier time — that ever-elusive “Golden Age” that always seems a generation or two before. For Allen, it dates back to the Jazz Age, finally allowing him to use his favorite tunes in their original context.
Showing neither affection nor support, Gil’s insufferable fiancee, Inez (a disappointingly flat Rachel McAdams), humors her husband-to-be, but spends most of their Paris vacation fawning over a former crush (Michael Sheen), who smugly schools anyone within earshot. “He’s so knowledgeable,” Inez coos, while unpretentious Gil squirms with discomfort.
Gil would clearly rather be exploring the city solo, and that evening finds him wandering Montmartre when the clock strikes midnight and a classic Peugeot pulls up full of insistent young strangers. The retro-dressed revelers beckon, inviting Gil along for an evening of carousing with yesterday’s heroes — the A-list of literary, music and art stars who rubbed elbows in 1920s Paris.
Rather than reveal the identities of his newfound friends further, suffice to say that Gil enjoys a rare audience with the era’s intellectual heavyweights, whose low-key entrances become something of a running joke (as does the mix of lookalikes and Oscar-winning stars Allen enlists to play them). Returning night after night, Gil relishes his spot among this chummy fraternity of cultural giants, growing increasingly dissatisfied with the shrill realities of his future wife and in-laws (Kurt Fuller and Mimi Kennedy, giving their best Alan Alda and Diane Keaton impersonations).
But as New York writer Luc Sante once warned, “Nostalgia can be generally defined as a state of inarticulate contempt for the present and fear of the future.” Gil wrestles with just this frustration, until the script’s pat epiphany sets in, with the character disowning the present as he wallows in the insecurity of his own talent.
While Inez ignores him, a fetching French dame (Marion Cotillard, once again capitalizing on her classic good looks) worships Gil immediately, recognizing his genius from the first line of his manuscript. Such is the ego-stroking role Allen expects of his women, with special respect shown Zelda Fitzgerald (Alison Pill) for propping up her man. No doubt Inez would be a worthier character if only he’d written her to be more combative, though the less time the story spends in the present, the more fun the picture proves.
If “Midnight in Paris” feels like another of Allen’s one-way fantasies, it ultimately manages to get off easy thanks to Wilson’s unassuming charm. In one or two uncanny moments, the actor looks enough like Allen to trigger a quick double-take, but mostly, Wilson makes the role endearingly his own, grinning and nodding his shaggy head until you fear it might fall off. He’s more re-actor than actor here, which works fine in a context where he is surrounded by the era’s most famous faces (Corey Stoll proves especially commanding as Hemingway at his most earnest).
In essence, the director worries about death so the rest of us don’t have to, spinning such concerns in such a way that the rest of us can sleep easy — and enjoy a laugh in the process. Comparing oneself to the titans who came before can be crippling on creativity, though Allen soldiers on, and time will no doubt prove that even these later, lighter pretty-city escapes will outlive the attempts of lesser talents.