Sunday, January 15, 2012

Midnight in Paris

Director:Woody Allen
Starring: Owen Wilson, Rachel McAdams, Marion Cotillard, Kathy Bates, Adrian Brody, Carla Bruni, Michael Sheen, Alison Pil, Corey Stoll, Tom Hiddleston
Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 94 min.

★★★ (out of ★★★★)

Good news for the present. Someday it'll be the past and then people can finally appreciate it. That's essentially the message of Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris, the most financially successful film of his career, and yet another touching on what's emerged as 2011's recurring cinematic theme: Nostalgia. Whether it was the return of the 70's and 80's in Super 8, The Muppets and Drive, a call back to the silent movie era in films like Hugo and The Artist or a warning against the potential danger of living in the past in Young Adult, 2011 truly was the year we wished we could be in any time but 2011. So now it's Woody's turn and it's kind of unfortunate this carries the baggage of being his biggest moneymaker because now everyone will go in expecting something monumental. It isn't, nor does it signal this huge "comeback" you've been hearing about. In fact, Allen will never need a comeback since he's so inconsistent it would be impossible to tell if it happened. With an unmistakable emphasis on quantity over quality over the years, his output is so hit-or-miss it's almost maddening. More frustrating than that though is an inability to point to anything he specifically does wrong, despite the end result often being unremarkable. This is no exception, but at least it's enjoyable, boasts an interesting premise and features one of the better neurotic Allen protagonists. It's a nice, pleasant diversion. But that's about it.

The story centers on Gil Pender (Owen Wilson), a successful Hollywood screenwriter and wannabe novelist vacationing in Paris with his overbearing fiancee Inez (Rachel McAdams) and her wealthy, ultra-conservative parents (Mimi Kennedy and Kurt Fuller). While there, they run into Inez's former flame Paul (Michael Sheen), a pseduo-intellectual blowhard who arrogantly (and inaccurately) lectures them on Parisian art and history. Of course, Inez is smitten with him, which only enhances Gil's inferiority complex. After a night of drinking, Gil wanders the streets and is picked up at midnight by an antique car and driven to a party where he's magically transported to the 1920's. Given an opportunity to interact with major art and literary figures from his favorite era such as F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald (Tom Hiddleston and Alison Pill), Ernest Hemingway (Corey Stoll), Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates), Cole Porter (Yves Heck) and Pablo Picasso (Marcial Di Fonzo Bo), things get complicated when he falls for Picasso's mistress Adriana (Marion Cotillard). Now he must sort out his present relationship difficulties with Inez and reconcile them with these magical midnight experiences in the past.

Owen Wilson is tremendous in this and maybe the most likable he's been yet in a leading role. He always exudes a goofy charm but here for a change it isn't masked by the sarcasm or smugness of the character he's playing. He's one of those actors we want to like as a comedy lead but because the low brow material he's often chosen it just hasn't come together for him yet. Here it does as he kind of gets to play the same slightly off-kilter, dorky regular guy he has been but in a more sophisticated story and setting. Much of the film's success hinges on how likable, naive and easy to relate to Gil is and Wilson delivers on all fronts, making this one of Allen's more surprisingly inspired casting choices. Beyond seeing Wilson in this type of a role, there isn't a whole lot that necessarily seems fresh, but most of it works anyway, especially the scenes set in the past. The big standout is Corey Stoll, whose movie stealing performance as Ernest Hemingway, however brief, accomplishes the feat of somehow capturing how we'd imagine the author would talk (i.e. exactly how he writes), making it feel authentic rather than a parody. And as Adriana, Marion Cotillard is mesmerizing to the point we'd question why Gil would even want to return to his current life. While the present storyline represents the same old tired Allen material of clearly mismatched lovers fighting all the time, but it's saved by a hilariously bitchy, against type turn by Rachel McAdams and Michael Sheen turning on the sleaze as the ex. Though we're kind of nailed over the head with it, the film's simple message of living for the present is a good one and Allen and Wilson have no problems selling it in the final act.
If this seems like an unenthusiastic recommendation that's because it is. The film will probably play best with diehard Woody Allen fans, literary and history buffs and elderly Oscar voters whose fingers are probably ready to fall off right now from checking it off in every possible category it can be nominated for. But it's definitely NOT a giant leap forward creatively for Allen in any way and exactly the same thing he's been doing for the past twenty years but in more international, worldly locations instead of New York. It's kind of disappointing no one's noticed, or if they have, don't seem to care. Maybe that's because he does it well and his movies (even at their worst) tend to be really entertaining in the most harmlessly enjoyable, inoffensive way. So it's a little frustrating when each new Woody Allen picture is treated as this "big event" when nothing he's done since the late 70's or early 80's has lingered in the mind longer than 24 hours after the credits have rolled. This, despite all the praise it's gotten, doesn't either. But it works for what it is. A couple of times in recent years Allen's deviated slightly from his usual template, but not enough to say he's taken any kind of a risk, which could also help explain how he's avoided a steep decline. Midnight in Paris is mildly delightful, but anyone still hoping for that Woody Allen "comeback" might just have to keep waiting.

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