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Thursday, December 22, 2011

Midnight in Paris

Midnight in Paris is Woody Allen’s 90-minute riff on the irresistible lure of nostalgia, and it’s point, a point which the film itself acknowledges is a minor insight, is that none of us can recognize the present for the golden age it will appear to be to our successors. In Allen’s vision, each of us is doomed to gaze into the past with longing.

But Allen doesn’t seem to be condemning nostalgia, especially since his version of the past seems so much more fun than the present. The protagonist and Allen stand-in Gil Pender (Owen Wilson) is a screenwriter turned frustrated novelist traveling in Paris with his fiancé Inez (Rachel McAdams) and her parents. There they run into Paul, an old friend of Inez’s and a maddeningly annoying pedant. Put off by Paul’s lectures and his fiance’s recriminations, Gil begins wandering the streets of Paris late at night, hoping to harness his romantic notions of Paris and channel them into his writing.

There, through some unexplained phenomenon, Gil is transported back to the Paris of the ‘20s, with the Lost Generation of American writers, and a host of assorted artists, poets, and luminaries. This aspect of the film is charming and cute, and provides ample opportunity for the kinds of in-jokes that the liberal arts majors of the world (counting myself among them) can chuckle at knowingly. It’s also a chance for the large and talented cast to go a little crazy, playing up the eccentricities of their famous roles.

There’s Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald (Tom Hiddleston and Allison Pill) drinking and arguing, Ernest Hemingway (Corey Stoll) making bombastic assertions with outsized bravado. Stoll is drolly hilarious in the part, going on about love, sex, death, and lion hunting. Kathy Bates is solid as always as Gertrude Stein, who agrees to proofread Gil’s novel. (It’s almost like science fiction, she says.) Adrien Brody shows up as surrealist Salvadore Dali, and his ridiculous patter about rhinoceroses is delightful. (If there were an Oscar for Best Actor in a Performance of Less than Two Minutes, he’d be a real contender.) Oh, and a couple of names you might know stop by for a while, guys like Picasso, T.S. Eliot, and Cole Porter.

Eventually, because who couldn’t fall in love in ‘20s Paris, Gil finds himself competing for the attention of Adriana (Marion Cotillard) with Picasso and Hemingway, and longing more and more to be able to stay in the past. Gil’s interactions with Inez become more strained, and the script shows signs of weakness as McAdams fails to keep her character from appearing shrewish. As for Wilson, he’s one of the more palatable Allen-imitators of late, certainly more so than, say, Kenneth Branagh in Celebrity or Will Ferrell in Miranda & Miranda, but it’s still disappointing to see that Allen still insists on his protagonists speaking just as he does.

Midnight in Paris is Woody Allen’s biggest commercial hit in years, but the film’s imbalance between present and past keeps it from achieving anything beyond modest charm.

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