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Home » Culture and Criticism

25/31: Midnight in Paris

Submitted by on December 26, 2011 – 3:05 PM10 Comments

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.




  • Todd K says:

    It made *me* want to rewatch The Purple Rose of Cairo, where I thought he more artfully used whimsy/magical realism to get to a bigger point. More and more, I’m wondering if that isn’t his best film. It seems serenely impervious to aging, whereas some of my other favorite Woodys have dated a bit.

    As with Match Point and Vicky Cristina Barcelona, I felt Midnight in Paris got a soft ride from critics/fans. There have been so many poorly paced, tin-eared misfires in the post-Mia years that he’s lowered his own bar a lot. This is pleasant and attractive but, yes, also easy and obvious. (Weird comparison, but it’s similar to the way Paul McCartney gets raves when he puts out an album that isn’t completely empty-headed and excruciating to listen to. People who have an emotional investment and want these legendary artists to do well lose sight of the line between “better” and “good.”)

    One point of disagreement: I never thought WA was an asset to his own films as an actor. Stanley Kauffmann nailed it when he wrote (of Husbands and Wives, in The New Republic) that in the best cases, you feel as though you’re watching behind-the-scenes footage of the director/auteur showing the real actor how he wants it done, but then the behind-the-scenes stuff gets released. Admittedly, very good actors such as Branagh have failed in “Woody mode,” but Cusack, Caine, Tucci, and even (in gender-switch versions) Rebecca Hall and Mia have pulled it off. I also recall his own quote that every part he has played would have been better served by Dustin Hoffman, but that DH won’t work for Woody-scale.

    Pluses: Marion Cotillard continues to win me over as potentially annoying characters, and I loved Kathy Bates’s Stein — more maternal and encouraging than the vinegary version in Alan Rudolph’s The Moderns. Appealing take on Zelda Fitzgerald too.

  • Trip says:

    For me, it didn’t invite comparisons to Manhattan so much as it felt like a cut-rate version of Purple Rose of Cairo.

    I didn’t care for this one much at all; I really got sick of Allen just punching me in the face with his theme, and never developing it any further. (When Owen Wilson actually explicitly stated the theme in a speech in the Belle Epoque seen, as if it hadn’t been made abundantly clear by then, I groaned aloud.) That said, the movie did have its moments, including the whole Belle Epoque twist — but I wouldn’t recommend it, and I’m a little disappointed that it’s almost assured of a Best Original Screenplay nomination.

  • Sarah D. Bunting says:

    I also love PRoC, which might not be his best but could well be his most underrated. (“It’s New Jersey. Anything could happen!”) I concur on the critical soft-soap, too, though if they’re like me — i.e., “It’s not another ‘Jade Scorpion,’ let’s start it at a B-plus just for that and go from there” — I understand the instinct.

    I like Alison Pill, but I’ve just read two Zelda bios this fall and as a result, the portrait annoyed me a little. Not the film’s fault, really, but…she’s not insecure. She’s mentally ill.

    @Trip, I hear you, but I’m too busy being grossed out by “The Descendants”‘s mortal lock on screenplay statuary to care much what else gets nominated. SHUT UP, “THE DESCENDANTS.”

  • Abigail says:

    Lovely review. I loved it for the lighthearted approach to big names as well. Hemingway was delightful, especially for a longstanding Hemingway hater such as myself.

    Re Gil and Inez’s relationship: it didn’t bother me. She was beautiful, he was a Hollywood screenwriter = believable couple.

    The man can still make beautiful, beautiful films, but he lost the human touch long ago. It’s all beautiful rich people and their tiny problems now.

  • Erin in SLC says:

    Your review confirms my every hesitation about just watching this one already. It sets me on edge when I detect an author-avatar protagonist who is the only relatable or sensible person in a script, surrounded by unsympathetic one-note jerks to offset just what a great guy he is. Woody Allen seems to hit that button for me, every time. I know, I know: treason.

    On the other hand, I would gladly watch two hours of Owen Wilson reading the phone book, eating snack food, or blowing his adorably deformed nose. (Am I alone in this?)

  • Jen S 1.0 says:

    I’m personally relieved when Woody uses stand ins because he’s the epitome of Matthew McConaughy’s character in Dazed and Confused: “I keep getting older, [the girls] stay the same age.” It’s been seriously gross for years now. I quit watching any of his movies he starred in after Everybody Says I Love You, in which he not only convinced Julia Roberts to sleep with him, he did so with the help of his preteen daughter. GROSS.

  • Erin W says:

    I thought this was terrific, easygoing fun. All the awful characters were hilarious in their awfulness, especially Michael Sheen. (I was watching with my mom, and it got to the point that every time a character said “Paul’s an expert on…” we both chorused, “OF COURSE HE IS.”) It was a simple, obvious kind of story but Wilson was adorable and the costumes were nice and the buildings are pretty. And they cut from McAdams saying, “Well, we know he didn’t go out dancing,” to Wilson doing the Charleston with Djuna Barnes! Come on, that’s funny.

    For the record, I did spend the majority of my teen years obsessed with Paris in the 20s, so I was predisposed to like this.

  • Todd K says:

    Good point by Trip about the Owen Wilson character literally stating the theme. Allen has always done that to a degree (my least favorite scene in Manhattan is the climactic one in which Isaac tells Yale, and the audience, what Yale’s shortcomings are…although the skeleton almost salvages it), but he’s really leading us by the nose this time. In Purple Rose, the final scene is so wonderful because everything you need to know is there in Mia’s face. He trusted his actor and his audience in that whole film. I’m afraid if he wrote it today and he had ScarJo or whoever as Cecilia, there would be a clunky speech in the middle where she explains to her sister that she goes to the movies all the time to escape from her drab reality.

    My pick for his most underrated is Another Woman, which gets dismissed as just another stilted Euro-homage by him. This is unfair. The cast is superb, and he gives them all powerful things to play: Sandy Dennis’s look gradually darkening until she lets loose on her husband and Marion in the bar; Harris Yulin breaking your heart with his calm, matter-of-fact recollection of his sister’s “brutally honest” critique of his writing; Betty Buckley making that awful scene at the tweedy WASP party. And Gena Rowlands is phenomenal in the lead, playing a woman easy to admire but almost impossible to like…which is the point, how she became “another woman” when she wasn’t paying attention, or was paying attention to the wrong things. One of the great movie-carrying turns in an Allen, where the lead is usually more of a first among equals. This is a tad schematic in its lucidity, and it owes more than a little to Wild Strawberries, but it’s thoughtful and brave — more so than anything he’s gotten praise and awards for post-millennium.

  • pomme de terre says:

    I usually don’t care for Woody Allen movies, but I really enjoyed MiP. Paris looked beautiful, and I thought Wilson was charming. I appreciated that the movie just believed in time travel and didn’t overexplain it. I agree that the Inez caricature was too harsh to be realistic, and I thought it damaged the overall story. Gee, what should Gil do? Be with his hateful fiance who doesn’t care about his dreams, or with the lovely girl he’s actually attracted to? WHAT WILL HE DECIDE?!

    Carla Bruni was great in her bit part. Girlfriend may have been born in Italy, but she has the Gallic shrug down cold. I also enjoyed the scene in which Gil is explaining the time travel to the Surrealists, who are like, “OK, time traveling car, check. Go on.”

  • Al says:

    I liked this movie. I was a French major in college, so it was like candy for me – light and fun and pretty and ooooh, Paris.

    I saw it with a friend and his first impression was, “Gosh, his fiancée was just awful.” And all I could say was, “Of course she was, it was a Woody Allen movie.” The whole thing was completely predictable. It worked though – since I didn’t have to worry about what would happen to the protagonist, I could just sit back and enjoy the scenery and the cameos.

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