25/31: Midnight in Paris
Woody Allen stand-ins work best when played by Woody Allen himself. Allen's voice is so distinctive, and his heroes generally so him despite cosmetic name changes (Alvy Singer, Larry Lipton), that in other hands the characters can devolve into poor imitations. Your worst offender may vary; mine is Kenneth Branagh, honking ineffectually through Celebrity, although singling out a single turd in that shitshow is probably uncharitable, Winona.
But Owen Wilson in Midnight in Paris is an adorable surprise in his cinched khakis and fluffy hair. Playing Gil Pender, an ambivalent screenwriter, on a trip to Paris with his cartoonishly bitchy and dismissive fiancée Inez (Rachel McAdams) and her equally 2D conservative parents, Wilson is clearly relishing the role without overdoing the Allenisms. It doesn't hurt his appeal that all the other characters in the present are ugly-American straw men, or that the famous notables in the past, whom Gil magically visits at midnight every night, become a Bill & Ted's-ish parade of caricatures.
Midnight in Paris is a bagatelle, and doesn't aim for much more, but despite Wilson's infectiousness, the writing is shallow. "Cheap is cheap," Inez's mother sniffs repeatedly, and you could say the same about the jokes at her expense, and those at the expense of Paul (Michael Sheen), the impossibly pretentious friend who "happens to be an expert on" nearly every aspect of French culture. But cheap shots can still land; the running Paul gag went so far that I ended up loving it (not least the bit where Gil is appealing for correcting-Paul backup to a docent played with patient amusement by Carla Bruni). Gil's "…come the fuck on" face in response to the name Jean Cocteau is, I suspect, a tiny joke Allen makes at his own expense, and Wilson plays it perfectly. And several of the actors saddled with titanic names do great work in their parts. Kathy Bates occupies Gertrude Stein's physicality believably, and Corey Stoll smartly plays Hemingway with a humorous touch (the staccato delivery of "Have you ever shot a charging lion?" cracked me up). And having just asked Joe R last week, in total seriousness, what happened to Adrien Brody, it's nice to see him again…but the Dalí imitation is underwhelming.
Still: and? It's nice to look at, Wilson is fab, but: so? The idea that Gil would stay with Inez as long as he does is not credible; McAdams does right by the "I never really liked you, but I suppose it's time to get married to someone" thing, but that makes it all the less likely that these two people who have nothing in common but good coiffure would get as far as an engagement ring. The audience's only investment in their relationship is its hoped-for end. The audience also arrives at the point well ahead of the characters; of course you can't escape your problems in the present by going into the past, even if the ex-pat titans of American literature fluff your novel.
My biggest issue with Midnight in Paris isn't that it's a meringue, or obvious. It's that it invites, then inevitably suffers by, comparisons to Manhattan, Allen's love letter to New York City and to the ways we break our own hearts. You had bombastic snottery and romantic doom there, too, but the characters had depth; yes, Mary is difficult and affected, but she's also smart and real and has a neurotic Dachshund named Waffles, and she doesn't quite resolve to broad strokes. Isaac also struggles with what he's doing with his talent, but it's not as black-and-white, and there isn't a fairytale ending. I think Allen intends this one as a fairytale, so those aspects of it aren't necessarily a bad thing, but during the scenes set in present-day Paris, I found myself longing for Allen's 1978 New York — for that wonderful shot of a different Hemingway, Mariel, nestled in a cone of light in Isaac's apartment, or for the resolutely unromantic downpour Isaac and Mary take refuge from in a museum. I don't mean to judge one against the other, but the one made me want to watch the other instead. Which isn't a bad thing at all.
Tags: 31 Days 31 Films Adrien Brody Carla Bruni Corey Stoll Ernest Hemingway Gertrude Stein Jean Cocteau Joe R Kathy Bates Kenneth Branagh Manhattan Mariel Hemingway Michael Sheen Midnight in Paris movies Owen Wilson Rachel McAdams Salvador Dali weak imitations Winona Ryder Woody Allen