Director: Woody Allen
Cast: Owen Wilson, Rachel McAdams, Marian Cotillard, Corey Stoll, Michael Sheen, Alison Pill, Tom Hiddleston, Kathy Bates, Adrian Brody, Léa Seydoux
Woody Allen & the Art of Impression
There are few things in cinema as delightful as a good Woody Allen comedy. Happily, Midnight in Paris is a good Woody Allen comedy and ,as such, a delightful combination of dreamy lightness and romantic allure. Most of its script breezes by effortlessly, and it’s only when the film attempts satirical digs of cynicism that things fall a bit flat. For example, the entire relationship between Owen Wilson’s Gil and his fiancée Inez, played by Rachel McAdams. I bought this relationship in their scene together in Monet’s garden at Giverny, but once they actually started interacting with each other and with others, I couldn’t understand how they ever got together in the first place. Likewise, the repeated jokes of Gil’s politics and his would-be father-in-law’s Republican ethics also fall flat and feel tired. In fact, by design or not, all of the characters in the present day story are either completely forgettable, one-trick ponies (Michael Sheen and his deliciously wicked smile, for example), or stunt casting (Carla Bruni). Another thing that didn’t work for me is the film’s opening montage of Paris, its streets and corners. It recalls the opening of Manhattan (1979), but lacks the majesty, romance, wit, and drama of that opening. It feels touristy or superficial rather than displaying the intimate knowledge of a native resident.
But, these are quibbles, really, because the charm of the fantasy and its main character completely won me over. Perhaps the reason for this is the film is a kind of pastiche of Mr. Allen’s earlier work. Aside from the allusive Manhattan opening montage, this films share other similarities: both films’ protagonists are successful comedy writers (Isaac Davis a television writer and Gil Pender a Hollywood screenwriter) and, to my eyes, there is a resemblance between Mariel Hemingway’s Tracy in Manhattan and the character of Gabrielle (Léa Seydoux) in Midnight in Paris. There are also pieces of Everyone Says I Love You (1996) — including, a reference to Mr. Allen’s character’s introduction in that film walking the streets of Paris with a baguette under his arm — and, most notably, The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985) that thread through Midnight in Paris. Gil Pender’s name is suspiciously close to the second Jeff Daniel’s character’s name in Purple Rose, Gil Shepherd. Both films draw the audience into the acceptance of the fantasy through sympathy with the protagonist and our desire to break the fourth wall and join our heroes and icons in a life away from the normal, and both films offer up the same message and conclusion, that life in the present, life in the real is not so much the correct choice, but the only choice. Just as Cecilia cannot join Tom Baxter on the silver screen, Gil cannot really join the Lost Generation or Adriana in the Belle Epoque. The difference is that Cecilia’s life really is miserable and is a much more sympathetic character: she lives in the Depression, a shitty job, and an abusive husband. Gil, on the other hand, is wealthy and successful, and his misery comes from the neglect of his dreams and emptiness of his life. Where we desire the best outcome for Cecilia because we genuinely feel pity for her, we desire the best for Gil because of his innocence, charm, and ability to drop his current life to pursue his dreams; it is an envious position to be in and that’s really our fantasy fulfilment.
Another aspect in which Midnight in Paris is similar to the writer-director’s previous work, this time I’ll recall Everyone Says I Love You specifically, is the presence of the Woody Allen on-screen persona. Both these films exhibit two of the best Woody personae, but in very different ways. Edward Norton’s performance as Holden Spence in Everyone Says I Love You is much more of an impersonation of that persona, almost as if Mr. Allen was directing his younger self once again. After watching the PBS American Masters documentary on Mr. Allen, it is made evident that he spends very little time working with the actors trying to explicitly get what he wants from them. It’s plausible that so many of the performers in Mr. Allen’s films receive acting accolades is because the director trusts the actor to do his or her job. If this has been a consistent trait throughout Mr. Allen’s directing career then Mr. Norton’s performance comes from his own decisions to embody the ticks and traits of Woody. Owen Wilson’s performance decision makes the Woody persona a much subtler presence; it’s more impression than impersonation in that it suggests Woody rather than shows him. This allows the Owen Wilson screen persona to shine through and fill out the character of Gil Pender with the winsomeness that has permeated probably all of Mr. Wilson’s roles — my favourites being Dignan in Bottle Rocket (1996), Eli Cash in The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), and Hansel in Zoolander (2001). I’m not suggesting that Mr. Wilson’s performance is better than Mr. Norton’s. The latter is probably harder to do well (just watch Kenneth Branagh try it in 1998’s Celebrity), but I do think that Owen Wilson’s performance lifts Midnight in Paris. He endows Gil Pender with anti-gravity so that the audience can float along and away much like Goldie Hawn dancing by the Seine near the end of Everyone Says I Love You.
I’m sorry if I again sound down on this movie by continually comparing it to Mr. Allen’s previous works. I’m not. I really, really like Midnight in Paris. Woody Allen recalling the artistic past of the early 20th century by way of his own past is a cab ride I’ll gladly take for 90 minutes once or twice and probably more than twice. I don’t think Midnight in Paris is a great film, but it is a very good one and a very sweet and earnest one. If it’s your introduction to Mr. Allen’s work and you enjoyed it, then seek out its tonal soul-mates Everyone Says I Love You and The Purple Rose of Cairo (which is the best of these films and one of Mr. Allen’s finest efforts). And, if you enjoy those, go forth and indulge in the wonder of as many of his films, the light and the dark, as possible.