When one has made as many films as Woody Allen has (40), it's easy to feel that the work is becoming repetitive. As one of the most prolific auteurs ever, Allen has had his shares of triumphs and failures. And yet he's always pressed ahead, never taking too long between films. Starting in the mid-2000s, Allen hit something of a turnaround, leaving his beloved New York to write love letters to the great metropolises of Europe. It hasn't been without setbacks (You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger), but Europe seems to suit Allen well, as evidenced by works like Vicky Cristina Barcelona, and now, Midnight in Paris.
First, a moment of honesty. When I first saw the trailer, I actually feared for the worst. All I got was that a man takes walks around Paris at midnight and "finds himself," and that everything else seemed rather, well, stupid. When Allen is on fire, he's fantastic, but when he's not, he can be horribly tedious, and I feared for the worst with this film. But the secret to Midnight in Paris that makes it work turns about to be those midnight sequences, which the trailer couldn't have done more to misrepresent.
After a picturesque opening montage of the city of light (one that could have used some trimming), we're introduced to American writer Gil (Owen Wilson) and his fiancé Inez (Rachel McAdams). Gil is, to put it lightly, in love with Paris. Inez? Not so much. He's a romantic who loves the idea of Paris in the 1920s, she's convinced that he's suffering from what the pedantic Paul (Michael Sheen) calls "Golden Age syndrome." One night, trying to get a break from Paul's pseudo-intellectualism and Inez's condescending right-wing parents, Gil gets lost wandering around the city, and finds himself (literally) transported to the Paris of his dreams.
And it's here, in those midnight sequences that the trailer(s) refused to spoil, that the magic kicks in. Gil begins fraternizing with everyone from the Fitzgeralds (Tom Hiddleston and Alison Pill) to Salvador Dali (Adrien Brody), and even receives writing advice from Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates). These encounters, whether one-hit wonders or repeated, are charming, surprising, and at times hilarious. While there he also encounters the (fictional) Adriana (Marion Cotillard), part-time lover of Picasso and Hemingway. What initially starts as a charming relationship soon evolves into a microcosm of the film's central idea: that people always long for an idealized version of the past. For Gil, a man of the 2000s, it's the 1920s, but for Adriana, it's the Paris of the Belle Epoch. So even though Midnight in Paris is a love letter to Paris, it has the smarts to not go overboard in its idealizing of the past, reminding us that we can still enjoy the works of the past in the present.
However, like the Paris of Gil's fantasies, Allen's latest does have its share of problems, even if they often get buried under film's infectious charm. As fun and surprising as the historical cameos are, there are times when Allen's film falls prey to name-dropping for the sake of name-dropping, with plenty of luminary figures not even getting more than a few seconds of screen time. Meanwhile, in the present, Michael Sheen's Paul, though used to great effect, vanishes after a certain point, often-mentioned but suddenly never heard from again. Allen also throws in a rather pointless scene involving missing jewelry, one that comes dangerously close to evoking his writing at its worst: drawn-out, tedious, and not even remotely amusing. And as a work of story-telling, Midnight actually feels like a half step down from Vicky Cristina Barcelona, despite lacking that film's irritating omniscient narrator.
Thankfully, Allen has assembled an ensemble that makes even the film's weakest moments go down smoothly. The bigger cameos, like Hiddleston and Pill, or Corey Stoll as Ernest Hemingway, are true delights. Brody's Dali, however, is perhaps the best, in a one-scene role wherein he proposes to Gil that he paint him like rhino with a melting mouth. As the film's lone fictional blast from the past, Marion Cotillard brings a lovely presence to Adriana, even if the role feels almost too basic. Her chemistry with Wilson really works, and it's almost a shame that Allen wraps up their arc so quickly, instead of really exploring their gradually diverging views on the past. Back in the present, Rachel McAdams is saddled with a rather one-note role, which she handles adequately. More entertaining are her parents (Kurt Fuller and In the Loop's Mimi Kennedy), wealthy Tea Party-supporters who begin to grow suspicious of Gil's recurring midnight strolls. The show, however, belongs to Wilson. A California-ized version of the Woody Allen persona, Wilson's odd charm meshes perfectly with Gil's (and thereby Allen's) sensibilities, showing us that New York isn't the only city home to sensitive neurotic writers.
Midnight in Paris may not rank among Allen's finest, and it may have its share of flaws, but there's certainly a lot to love. The cast is game, the script is light and funny, and at a clean 90 minutes, it's the sort of small fantasy that you wish would go on for another 20 or 30 minutes. Allen's conclusion, that we can still enjoy the past in our own present, isn't executed with much depth or emotional resonance, yet it still works as a frothy love letter to one of the world's great cities thanks to its wit and irresistible charm. For a director now 40 films in, Midnight in Paris is proof that age has yet to rob Allen of his capacity to create thoroughly delightful cinema, regardless of whether or not you find it somewhat minor.