Catholic Transcript Magazine of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Hartford Connecticut

Thursday, April 26, 2018

ArtsMedia_Aug11NEW YORK – "Midnight in Paris" is Woody Allen’s best film in years. A love poem to the City of Light, past and present, it is a delightful summer idyll.

The film’s main character, Gil (Owen Wilson), a blond, WASPy stand-in for Mr. Allen, is a burned-out Hollywood screenwriter, working on his first novel, a tale about a nostalgic shop owner. Gil and his fiancée Inez (Rachel McAdams) find themselves tagging along with her parents John (Kurt Fuller) and Helen (Mimi Kennedy) to Paris, where her father is embarking on a new business venture.

After a few days at the Le Bristol Hotel in the city’s Eighth Arrondissement, a diet of sundry five-star French meals and some disastrous sightseeing with Inez’s know-it-all stateside friends, Gil comes down with a severe case of melancholy and writer’s block, and is in need of a respite. He finds solace alone on nighttime walks through Paris, which Mr. Allen interrupts with a time-travel device in the form of a vintage roadster. The roadster appears and transports Gil back to Paris’s Golden Age, the ’20s jazz era, and drops him off at a soiree where he meets many personages of the period: Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Cole Porter, Hemingway and Picasso. On a subsequent visit to Gertrude Stein’s salon, the writer offers to critique his novel. Gil even becomes a bit smitten with Picasso’s ex-girlfriend, Adriana (the wonderful Marion Cotillard), who tells him she is disenchanted by the ’20s generation of artists and takes him tripping further back in history to experience the Belle Epoque era at Maxim’s Restaurant, a time she much prefers.

Suddenly, Gil finds himself knee-deep in the nostalgia of Paris of the past. He finds his life and creativity are reawakened by these nocturnal sojourns and suggests to Inez that they move to Paris after they are married. He will write novels and they will live the La Boheme life like a modern day Mimi and Rodolfo.

Mr. Allen has used this time-travel idea in a couple of his short stories and employed the device in reverse in his 1985 film, "The Purple Rose of Cairo," where a Depression-era movie fan’s latest idol walks right off the screen and into her life. In "Midnight in Paris," the conceit is used more smoothly and with a stronger effect and supports a more continuously entertaining storyline.

A large contribution to the success of "Midnight in Paris" is the superb cast Mr. Allen has gathered together. Mr. Wilson, to me, is a latter day James Stewart. With a bemused manner and a slow delivery of lines, he gives a graceful, laid-back performance exactly opposite to Allen’s frenetic fast-talking New York-ese.

Ms. McAdams’s Inez and her mother, Ms. Kennedy; and father, Mr. Fuller; and her obnoxious friends, Paul (Michael Sheen) and Carol (Nina Arianda), reminded me of Mr. Allen’s early take on traveling Americans from his 1966 play, "Don’t Drink the Water." Though these characters are still amusing in a stereotyped way, they seemed like a stale throwback in Mr. Allen’s otherwise fresh take on Americans abroad.

Where Mr. Allen really hits pay dirt is in the gallery of actors he has assembled to play the various writers and artists in the film’s flashback sequences. You will especially enjoy Kathy Bates as a no-nonsense Gertrude Stein, Adrien Brody as the inimitable Salvador Dali, Corey Still as the braggadocio Ernest Hemingway and the stylish couple Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald (Tom Hiddleston and Alison Pill).

He even includes a more contemporary Paris figure, Carla Bruni, a.k.a. Mme. Sarkozy, French President Nicholas Sarkozy’s wife, who plays a tour guide at Museé Rodin. Of course, Paris is the real star of Mr. Allen’s film and thanks to the director of photography, Darius Khonodji, the city looks resplendent and dreamlike in sunshine and rain, day or night.

"Midnight in Paris" is rated PG-13, but I think Mr. Allen’s smart, sophisticated film is a rarity: a palmy summer entertainment for adults of any age to enjoy and treasure.

Bernard Carragher lives in New York and covers the arts and entertainment.