REVIEW: “Midnight in Paris” (**1/2)

Posted by · 8:30 am · May 11th, 2011

Cannes Film Festival
Opening Night

“The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” Nobody actually quotes L.P. Hartley in “Midnight in Paris,” Woody Allen’s often charming if largely over-explicated ode to the healing and deceiving properties of nostalgia. If they don’t, however, that could just be because a spring breeze stole the last few pages of the script at some point on the shoot of this amiably unfinished choux-pastry film, and Allen didn’t feel much like rewriting them.

Up until that point, Allen hasn’t exactly shied away from obvious references or externalized subtext — this is a film that trades in emphatic cultural and historical caricature, a picture-book approach that will delight some viewers even as it strikes others as aggravatingly twee, but one Allen commits to with the take-it-or-leave-it dispatch of a 75 year-old master working in quick-sketch mode.

Either way, the tourist-style filmmaking that surfaced in such recent Allen films as “Match Point” and “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” feels more thematically motivated in “Midnight in Paris,” a study of a character not merely a traveller in his physical surroundings, but his generational ones too. I kept wondering if the film’s narrowness of perspective was that of Allen or Owen Wilson’s Allen-substitute protagonist, and what textual difference the distinction even makes.

Much of Allen’s recent work has riffed off themes, structures and even characters he previously visited in more substantial films — “Match Point” reinscribed the arch morality play of “Crimes and Misdemeanors,” “You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger” the sour figure-eight of marital distrust in “Husbands and Wives” — and “Midnight in Paris” is no different. The touchstone this time appears to be one of Allen’s loveliest and most elliptical films, “The Purple Rose of Cairo,” with which his latest work shares the fantastical conceit of a heightened parallel world providing refuge for a character insecure in the present. Where the 1985 film used whimsy as a gateway to cruel melancholy, here it mainly ushers in further whimsy; Allen keeps the film in a fairytale realm throughout, where the only truths faced by his character are ones too self-evident to cause much pain.

Wilson plays Gil, another of Allen’s patented reality-shy creative types: a demotivated writer (and with reason, if the short extract we hear from his long-festering novel is anything to go by) holidaying in the City of Lights with his prissy, passionless fiancée (Rachel McAdams) and her awful Tea Party loyalist parents, he grim-facedly follows their expensively dull itinerary until happening upon, at the titular witching hour, a casual portal into Jazz-Age Paris. There Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald knock back drinks with Ernest Hemingway, who in turn seeks the literary counsel of Gertrude Stein (a genially hammy Kathy Bates), all while Cole Porter tickles the ivories somewhere in the background.

Initially thinking he’s entered the world’s most poker-faced costume party, Gil soon gets to using his time-travelling powers to pick the brains of his heroes, romance Marion Cotillard’s flapper-turned-muse and generally have the drabness of his 21st-century life put in relief for him — though things start picking up there, too, as several comely Parisian women, apparently powerless to resist the charms of solipsistic Yanks in Old Navy chinos, begin stalking him around the notably depopulated city.

The first half is sprightly stuff in a minor key, bolstered considerably by Darius Khondji’s velvety lensing and the droll, unaffected appeal of Wilson — a smart enough actor to realize that his own puppyish manchild persona is a suitable alternative to the jittery nebbishness so slavishly forged by other actors to have taken ‘the Allen role’ in one of the director’s latter-day features. The casual appearance of historical figures is a skit-sized gimmick that outstays its welcome after a while — and Allen makes curiously little use of the premise’s “Back to the Future”-style potential for comedy of anachronism — but affords most of the biggest laughs in a film more amusing than outright funny. Corey Stoll’s Hemingway, booming his blowhard dialogue (“Have you ever shot a charging lion?”) with cadences that wittily recall the man’s prose, is a delight, as is Adrien Brody’s preening, rhinoceros-fixated Dalí.

But having offered the audiences his most stimulating creative set-up in at least a decade, Allen proceeds to probe it very little in the film’s latter stages: Gil’s worlds remain neatly separate, and the suggestion that one of  his present-day love interests (Carla Bruni’s tour guide) is some parallel incarnation of Cotillard’s character is so fleeting as to be near-accidental. As thematic development stalls in the one-joke fantasy section, it positively regresses back in the now, as the off-puttingly binary approach to female characterization that so hampered “Whatever Works” and “You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger” once more rears its head.

If they aren’t Gertrude Stein, women in Gil’s world are either sweetly wistful dreamgirls or featureless, micromanaging shrews like McAdams’ character, a cream-dressed gorgon who spits out lines like, “You always side with the help.” There’s scant evidence as to why she and Gil were ever a match in the first place, which renders the film’s past-versus-present conversation a flatly one-sided one, even when Cotillard and Wilson begin helpfully explaining Allen’s already transparent grass-is-always-greener moral in unwieldy paragraphs of dialogue. For a film that initially seems to have little to say, “Midnight in Paris” starts saying it rather too loudly.

The most interesting and provocative read of the film is that its lapses into platitude and cliché are a wry reflection of Gil’s own emotional and intellectual limitations — none of which are expanded by a rushed happy ending that leaves an entire character’s strand flapping forlornly in the wind. But even the least generous take shouldn’t overrule the superficial pleasures of  this easy-to-take bauble, particularly after the mean-spiritedness of his last pair of features: jaunty, elegantly turned and styled to look like an antique music box, “Midnight in Paris” suggests that while the past (and occasionally even the present) may be a foreign country, some are happy just passing through.

[Photos: Sony Pictures Classics]

→ 27 Comments Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | Filed in: Reviews

27 responses so far

  • 1 5-11-2011 at 9:10 am

    Duncan Houst said...

    Oh happy day! After you gave “Thor” a favorable review, I was worried you were going soft. I’m still really excited to see this film, because it does look better than Woody Allen’s last two films, but I’ll go into it with my typically cautious attitude.

  • 2 5-11-2011 at 9:40 am

    RichardA said...

    It doesn’t read like a **1/2 rating.
    Besides, it’s Paris.

  • 3 5-11-2011 at 9:45 am

    red_wine said...

    Your review reads mostly positive. In general the reviews have been more generous & kind than usual for recent Allen films. Its all down to a game festival audience just whetting its appetite for spicier fare yet to be served.

    I don’t even think as good as Match Point is a compliment as I found that film to be wholly middling and disposable. I will perhaps give this a look.

  • 4 5-11-2011 at 10:40 am

    /3rtfu11 said...

    Gertrude Stein (a genially hammy Kathy Bates)

    How hammy? She’s not doing (Cheri) levels?

  • 5 5-11-2011 at 11:43 am

    JJ1 said...

    All of the reviews, even Guy’s so-so one, have me intrigued.

  • 6 5-11-2011 at 12:06 pm

    Guy Lodge said...

    RichardA: Perhaps — I suppose the value of these ratings is in the eye of the beholder. I regard 2.5 stars as a perfectly respectable rating — after all, given that we rate on a 0-4 scale, you can go much further down from there than up. And indeed, it’s Paris at its loveliest, and that’s never not worth a look.

    /3rtfu11: No, not quite ‘Cheri’ levels, but she knows she’s overcooking it. It’ll work for many.

  • 7 5-11-2011 at 12:32 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    “I found that film to be wholly middling and disposable.”

    ME. TOO.

  • 8 5-11-2011 at 12:54 pm

    m1 said...

    “I found that film to be wholly middling and disposable.”

    WOW. I thought the same thing when I saw Vicky Cristina Barcelona.

  • 9 5-11-2011 at 1:01 pm

    tony rock said...

    Match Point is without a doubt Allen’s best film of the past couple decades. The ending blew me away. Disposable is everything else he’s done since the 70’s/80’s heyday (Vicky Christina was okay).

  • 10 5-11-2011 at 1:07 pm

    Speaking English said...

    ***Disposable is everything else he’s done since the 70′s/80′s heyday***

    “Bullets Over Broadway” is one of his best films, in my opinion.

  • 11 5-11-2011 at 1:14 pm

    Guy Lodge said...

    I count Husbands and Wives among my top five Woody films, personally. I’d suggest that it’s too rawly personal a work to be described as “disposable”, even if you don’t like it as much as I do.

  • 12 5-11-2011 at 1:46 pm

    JJ1 said...

    Guy wrote: I suppose the value of these ratings is in the eye of the beholder. I regard 2.5 stars as a perfectly respectable rating — after all, given that we rate on a 0-4 scale, you can go much further down from there than up.

    I agree. To me, 2.5 out of 4 stars has always meant. Flawed, but I like it/recommend it.

    Furthermore, I notice that almost every 2.5 out of 4 review on Rotten Tomatoes is counted as negative; another knock on RT, as far as I’m concerned.

  • 13 5-11-2011 at 3:10 pm

    The Dude said...

    Of the reviews I’ve seen, Guy’s is the most negative…and considering the fact that this isn’t that negative of a review, it seems that the critics are eating this up. I’m actually a bit surprised, as the trailer did nothing for me (and I didn’t have as enthusiastic response to his other “good” works from the 2000’s, “Match Point” and “Vicki Christina Barcelona”). But now I’m a kind of intrigued…

  • 14 5-11-2011 at 5:43 pm

    John G said...

    The casting of Owen Wilson looks genius here – we’re finally seeing the real Wilson: the nervous, intelligent, well dressed writer he actually is instead of the relaxed surfer dude he likes to play on screen. From the trailer, he looks the be perhaps the best Woody proxy of all time, I can’t wait to see what he’s done with the script.

  • 15 5-11-2011 at 6:10 pm

    Derek 8-Track said...

    I like to read comments in my head with the voice of Michael Sheen’s character.

  • 16 5-11-2011 at 6:16 pm

    Ben M. said...

    In my mind Allen hasn’t made a great film since Bullets over Broadway, but I still think he is capable of making good enjoyable films, with a Whatever Works-style disaster sadly thrown in from time to time also.

    I have to say I’m starting to look forward to this film, from what I’ve read it sounds like fun. And it is nice that the film is opening here in the US next week, whereas I’m sure I will have to wait till late 2011 or even 2012 for many of the other Cannes films.

  • 17 5-11-2011 at 8:58 pm

    Fitz said...

    Eh. I don’t hold any expectations for ‘Midnight in Paris’ and I imagine if most critics hold it closer to their vest than their hearts than I can skip it.

  • 18 5-12-2011 at 1:27 am

    The Great Dane said...

    I really liked Vicky Cristina. Hall and Cruz were great. I am among the few who thinks Match Point is overrated – don’t people mind that he basically rips off his own Crimes and Misdemeanor plot? How many directors make TWO films about a man getting his lover killed so she won’t tell his wife/girlfriend? “Oh, but Match Point was so much more than that”. Well, if you say so. I just couldn’t get over the “oh no, he didn’t – he already made this story decades ago!” in my mind when I saw it.

    Hollywood ending is so underrated. There are SO many funny lines and scenes in that film!

    Bullets over Broadway is his last masterpiece. Almost every line in that film is genious, and the characters are hilarious. Every scene with the three Oscar nominated actors from that film (Wiest, Tilly, Palminteri) are classic, and Ullman and Broadbent are also amazing in it. LOVE IT!

    I’m waiting for the next masterstroke. Hollywood Ending and Vicky Cristina come the closest for me since the 90’s. People will disagree… :)

  • 19 5-13-2011 at 9:14 pm

    Jake G. said...

    All the other critics who have seen this movie have gave it really positive reviews! Maybe you should watch it again!!!

  • 20 5-14-2011 at 3:03 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    I’d gently suggest that you read my review again — it is positive, but with qualifications. Let’s not reduce all opinion to love/hate binary codes.

  • 21 5-14-2011 at 4:41 am

    JJ1 said...

    ‘Match Point’ is a film I did not love at first (all my friends who I saw it with in the theater loved it, so I felt left out).

    But my appreciation of it has grown over the years. Really, I kind of enjoy is peripherally because the it’s the setting, tennis milieu, & performances that get me through swimmingly, even if I still am now wowed by the plot.

  • 22 5-30-2011 at 4:34 pm

    Speaking English said...

    I disagree with this review. I thought “Midnight in Paris” was a completely lovely film, never less than immensely enjoyable and very often laugh-out-loud hilarious. Woody’s best film in at least 16 years, for me.

  • 23 6-15-2011 at 2:40 am

    chloes said...

    ” For a film that initially seems to have little to say, “Midnight in Paris” starts saying it rather too loudly.”

    Wow… my thoughts exactly; very well put. Many of the characters were… not exactly flat but rather, poorly developed.
    Some of the messages (notably ‘grass is always greener’) were so blatantly obvious, while others were just grazed over (for example, Allen pokes fun at American women who are obsessed with marriage and the future, while European women seem to live more in the now and aren’t hooked on this more material/official aspect of relationships… Even Cotillard’s character moves from one man to the next never worrying so much about making the relationship official and never even mentioning a desire to get married). I feel it could’ve been more balanced and the main message more subtle… and though the ‘holes’ (how did Wilson’s character EVER become engaged to someone like McAdam’s character?!) weren’t too problematic, I would’ve liked them better resolved even with a few simple lines briefly addressing them and filling them in.

    As you said, the best characters were those which were more on the sidelines. Hemingway was my favorite, but I quite liked Gatsby’s character though he was scarcely involved in the plot. Gertrude Stein was also a fun one. I know that whole crowd was portrayed in a specific way as to make the audience long to be a part of their group (just as Owen’s character experiences), so Allen did an amazing job with that.

    I do highly recommend the film, though. I could really connect with the feeling that the past is always better–or appears to be so. Also really made me miss Paris and all my summers there! And the rain ;)

  • 24 6-25-2011 at 9:14 pm

    Gerry said...

    Looking for the great line describing the Tea Party

  • 25 7-13-2011 at 9:21 am

    Pashmina said...

    Wow. Only 2 1/2 really? I thought it was better than, or least as good as Thor.

    And I think it’s tough to fully develop the characters and the magical setup because there were so many players. I preferred the mini skits, and stopped wondering about the going back in time premise. (Almost has the same sort of treatment as in Gattaca, background stuff, not the focus.)

    Some of the dialogue is just beautiful, and the general message of the movie about life being dissatisfying is well delivered.

  • 26 2-18-2012 at 12:50 pm

    Bruce said...

    Unfortunately, you dropped the laugh-out-loud part of the line:

    “You always side with the help. That’s why daddy says you’re a communist.”

    Otherwise, I tend to agree with your review. It is amusing and visually entertaining enough to devote 100 minutes of my life to it, but ultimately it is too superficial and too reliant on visual and historical clichés to draw one in more deeply. It is like most mediocre caricatures – whether it be food dominated by a single spice or wine dominated by oak or a movie that relies too heavily on the same motif over and over. At first it attracts your attention, but very quickly you begin to fidget and become distracted with its predictability and lack of subtlety. But all that said, I would watch it again because the film’s true supporting actress is Paris. No matter how pedantic and worldly we pretend to be, we all harbor similar day dreams about living in the true cultural center of the universe.

    “Slightly more tannic than the 59 … I prefer a smokey feeling.”