Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Midnight in Paris

I grew up with stupid comedies.  I love early Steve Martin and Mel Brooks, I can't help enjoying the nonstop barrage of movies like Airplane! or Top Secret!, and I have an unwavering love for the first Ace Ventura, despite the butt-talking.  I blame my dad for exposing my young mind to such perfectly crafted stupidity, but let's be honest --- I probably would have found my way to these movies without his help.  Not surprisingly, I grew up enjoying early Woody Allen films like Sleeper and Bananas, as well.  And, after those...well, there's pretty large gap.  I've never been able to endure the earnest awkwardness of Annie Hall (I think I've started it about six times and never made it more than thirty minutes in).  Someone told me that The Purple Rose of Cairo was amazing --- and it is clever, I'll agree --- but I certainly wasn't prepared for a Woody Allen movie that wasn't peppered with jokes.  Every time Allen releases a film (approximately every 4-8 months, from what I can tell), I always hear comments from Woody's apologists, saying "It's his best movie since ____," but I typically have never felt like watching the referenced movie, much less something with Jason Biggs in it.  Nevertheless, I did break from tradition and see Midnight in Paris.  And, to all the haters of the Woody Allen subgenre out there: the Allen apologists are right on this one.

Gil (Owen Wilson) is on a vacation in Paris with his fiancee, Inez (Rachel McAdams), and it's pretty obvious that they're not a great couple.  On paper, they should work; Gil is a successful Hollywood screenwriter and she...well, I'm not sure if she has a profession, but she appears to be wealthy, pretty and sociable --- a solid pairing for Hollywood brown-nosing.  Gil isn't satisfied, though.  He has taken time off work to write his first novel, and it's not going as well as he would have liked.  He's hoping to be inspired by the city of Paris, where so many of his idols lived and loved in the 1920s; Inez just hopes he will snap out of it so they can move to Malibu.  But no, Gil wants to drink in the romance of the city.  As luck would have it, the pair accidentally encounter some of Inez's friends, Paul (Michael Sheen) and Carol (Nina Arianda), and Gil's romantic Paris getaway becomes a group tour, where Paul narrates the history and meaning of everything they see.  Paul's knowledge and accuracy are questionable at best, but Carol and Inez fawn over him.  Annoyed by Paul's powerfully distilled blowhard-edness, Gil decides to spend some time on his own in Paris.
"And here's to you shutting the hell up"
He finds himself alone and drunk in an alley when the clock strikes midnight.  A car pulls up to the curb and the occupants invite him inside.  Being drunk, Gil doesn't notice how odd everyone is dressed until he finds himself at a party, introduced to Zelda (Alison Pill) and Scott (Tom Hiddleston) , arguably the poster boy for romantic writers obsessed with Paris.  And they are exactly as he always imagined they would be!
Specifically, Gil imagined they would be also play  Sex Bob-omb's drummer and Loki
Following the Fitzgeralds to another party, Gil meets and befriends Ernest Hemingway (Corey Stoll), who agrees to take Gil's novel to Gertrude Stein for an opinion.  But when he leaves the bar, he has returned to the present day.  If you were faced with a present where you feel unaccomplished and unhappy, and a "golden age" where you can interact with your idols, which would you pick?  Understandably, Gil starts living for the time he can spend in the past.  That's not particularly healthy, though.
Worst breakup speech ever: "I'm from the future..."

First things first, I must admit that I've never been to Paris, so I don't know how accurately Woody Allen is portraying the city.  I will say that Midnight in Paris does a good job capturing the romantic and exciting allure of the city; I don't know how much of that is rooted in reality, anyway.  At this point in his career, Woody Allen has been a legitimate film legend for at least thirty years, so he can fill his cast with just about any actor he wants and use them on an unabashedly nostalgic project.  On so many levels, Midnight in Paris should not work.  Owen Wilson has to be sympathetic, yet flawed, instead of smarmy and slightly more likable than some other jerk, which is his typical range; nostalgia can make for some poignant moments, but there's a fine line between that and quaintness; the story is pining for an age that most audiences have a limited knowledge of (at best) in a city that most audiences have never been.  The fact that Midnight in Paris works --- and is good, to boot --- is nothing short of astounding.

A big reason for this film's success comes from the actors.  I have never liked Owen Wilson much; I can enjoy him in Wes Anderson films, but I find him annoying in everything else.  Here, though, you're not supposed to completely like him --- and I can do that!  This is definitely the most complicated part I have seen Wilson play, and I thought he pulled it off with charm.  The intentionally unlikable characters (Rachel McAdams and her parents, played by Mimi Kennedy and the often kooky Kurt Fuller) were exactly what they were supposed to be; you were never supposed to like them even a little bit, but they were realistic enough to remind you of someone.  I also loved how convincingly Michael Sheen played a confident know-it-all; I think Sheen is underrated in America, but he delivered a lot of good lines in a style that was perfect for a habitual bullshitter.  For me, though, this is a film made by the bit parts.  There are so many actors --- good actors, too --- who had small roles, playing historical parts, and they were all very entertaining.  I'm not an F. Scott Fitzgerald fiend, but I was instantly able to recognize Scott and Zelda in this movie and it felt right to me.  Similarly, I absolutely loved every moment that included Adrien Brody's Salvador Dali impression and Kathy Bates as Gertrude Stein.
I also loved every mention of rhinoceroses
Marion Cotillard was typically lovely, although it is probably difficult to convincingly play a muse; Cotillard's American career continues to mature, as this is yet another atypical leading lady role that she has taken on of late.  Corey Stoll's work as Hemingway was equally impressive; for an actor I had never even heard of to turn in such a bad-ass manly performance was a treat.
Whatever comes out of his mouth can double as a Dos Equis or Old Spice commercial
I also liked Léa Seydoux as the local French gal; it wasn't an especially difficult role, but she was certainly adequate.  There are a few other notable appearances --- Mrs. France, Carla Bruni, has a fairly easy part and Oliver Rabourdin gets to play Gauguin --- but nothing as scene-stealing as what I've already mentioned.

With so many good acting performances, it should not be surprising that I liked Woody Allen's direction.  When he has a good script, Allen can coax out some remarkable performances from actors that typically get out-acted by Jackie Chan.
"To be fair, that was only twice..."
The whole film was extremely clever, and Allen took full advantage by laying visual breadcrumbs for the audience to pick up (or overlook), with regards to certain subplots.  Of course, since Allen directed Midnight in Paris, that means he also wrote it, so that whole "clever" thing goes double here.  I have a passing knowledge of Paris and its expatriates in the 1920s and even some knowledge of the Moulin Rouge-era; I certainly did not catch or appreciate every reference Allen includes in his script and direction, but I knew enough to be impressed by what I understood.  Even if you are oblivious to Gil's "golden age," this is still a very entertaining film; the characters are vibrant and strange and generally enjoyable.  More important than any of that, though, is the overall message.  In a year when so many movies (Hugo, The Artist, Super 8, etc.) have bent over backwards to give the glorious past a friendly handjob, Woody Allen (who has had his share of nostalgic flicks) made a movie that acknowledges that impulse, but then turns that into a forward-facing vision.  I found that incredibly refreshing and that's part of why this film left me with a silly grin on my face.

It is easy to enter into Midnight in Paris with some misconceptions.  It has elements of a romantic comedy; it could have slapstick humor in it, given the writer/director and cast; it could be a snooty Francophilic tribute; it could be yet another underwhelming film from an aging talent.  If you like France or French things, I think you will love this movie.  If you don't give a rat's ass about France, you will probably find it amusingly clever.  If you wish they had never changed the name back from American Fries, then you probably can't read, anyway.  This is easily one of the most well-written movies of 2011 and a welcome reminder of just how good Woody Allen can be.

1 comment:

  1. The little twist here is not only very clever but very charming as we see how all of these characters interact with one another and just how funny Owen Wilson can actually be. Good review Brian.