Friday, July 01, 2011

'Midnight in Paris' is Woody Allen at his witty, charming best

Woody Allen is a film-making machine. He has written and directed, and often starred in, at least one film a year since 1971. In recent years he's wisely chosen others to be in stand ins for the roles he would've played. With Owen Wilson in “Midnight in Paris,” a charming and effervescent film, he's found one of his best surrogates.
Since 2005, Allen has been making his way through Europe, having done three films in England, two in Spain and now one in France. “Midnight in Paris” is a love letter to the City of Lights much like the numerous notes of adoration he scribed to the city that never sleeps.
Owen Wilson stars as Gil, a screenwriter who views himself as a Hollywood hack, who is in Paris with his fiancee (Rachel McAdams) and her parents (Kurt Fuller and Mimi Kennedy).
Gil is taken by Paris and yearns to move there to work on his novel. His fiancee and her parents are typical gauche Americans, who can't be bothered with French culture. Allen's script uses the conservative parents to get in some political swipes in that will certainly get the film branded as liberal swill.
But this isn't Allen's satire of modern politics, but a fantasy in which Gil is whisked away by a magical car to Paris of the 1920s where he gets to hobnob with all his literary and artistic idols including F. Scott Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda (Tom Hiddleston and Alison Pill), Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates), Ernest Hemingway (Corey Stoll) and Salvador Dali (Adrien Brody). Perhaps most importantly he meets Adriana (Marion Cotillard), the woman who finds herself the temporary muse to many artists.
Allen's script wisely doesn't waste time trying to explain the mechanism of the time travel because the how doesn't matter. It is the why that counts. Gil is traveling back to the time that, in his mind, was the Golden Age. Allen uses time travel to explore nostalgia and the idea that some other time was better than the present. The final message that emerges is an expected one given Allen's own predilection toward the past.
The film is very funny, but the humor level depends on how familiar you are with the artist Gil meets. Even cursory knowledge is enough to get most of the jokes, but the more you know the funnier the material will become.
The whole cast is splendid. Cotillard continues to remain seemingly effortlessly charming and she has a sweet, low-key chemistry with Wilson. McAdams, one of the most likable actresses working today, shows her acting chops by coming off as completely insufferable. Brody's appearance isn't much more than a cameo, but he is hilarious in his few minutes.
The best of the bunch is Stoll as Hemingway. Allen's Hemingway speaks the way he wrote: succinct and direct, yet poetic. Stoll perfectly captures Hemingway's machismo.
Wilson hasn't been this good in years. His laid back acting style is, surprisingly, a perfect fit with Allen's fast paced, witty dialogue. Wilson only looks like a surfer dude; he can play smart when he is given intelligent dialogue to work with. He doesn't attempt to imitate Allen's mannerism or persona at all, and so the blending of Wilson's acting style with Allen's dialogue creates something that feels fresh.
People put Allen's later films under harsh scrutiny and say he will never be as good as he was in 1970s and 1980s. And yet you usually see the phrase “return to form” quite frequently in association with a new Allen release, which begs the question if, let's say every other film is a return to form, did he really ever lose it in the first place? “Midnight in Paris,” yet another return to the form he supposedly lost.

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