Midnight in Paris (2011)

If I was to graph my enjoyment of a Woody Allen film, it would be disproportional to the amount of Woody Allen persona infused into the film. While I can’t abide such films asManhattan, I’ve come to quite enjoy Crimes and Misdemeanors, which delegates Allen to a smaller role. Therefore, the complete lack of Woody Allen as an actor and, arguably, the lack of his persona in the lead character should make Midnight in Paris my favorite Woody Allen film. Unfortunately, I demand that something be filled in the absence of Allen.

This is not to say that Midnight in Paris is a film without substance. Far from it. The high concept provides a rich pastiche of thematic ruminations. When American tourist Gil (Owen Wilson) discovers he can go back in times and rub shoulders with the like of Ernest Hemmingway (Corey Stoll), Cole Porter (Yves Heck) and F. Scott Fitzgerald (Tom Hiddleston) during their days in Paris, the film opens an entire doorway of fantastic ideas, thoughts and moments.

However, the film insists on imposing modern day Paris and Gil’s nagging fiancée, Inez (Rachel McAdams), and her parents as an interlude between Gil’s time travels. This section is filled with shallow characters that Woody Allen insists on belittling at every turn and they quickly become clutter. Yes, part of it helps express Gil’s frustration as an aspiring writer in the modern world, but that’s one of the least interesting aspects of Gil’s character.

Part of the issue has to do more with Owen Wilson’s performance. Beyond being his typically brash and endearing self, he fails to bring much to the character. It’s hard to see him as the struggling artist because Owen Wilson never is able to give the audience a glimpse of that conflict, he can only verbalize it. He’s much better as a character when he geeks out over the idols of the past and ruminates on how great it would be to live amidst such times.

But, to steal a line from Sam Phillips, “nostalgia isn’t what it used to be.” While the film indulges the wondrous and fantastic notion of allowing an artist to visit their idols, converse with them and see and hear firsthand parts of their lives, it’s an affront to Gil when he learns that many of the greats see themselves stuck in a placid age with little creativity and imagination when compared to the past.

And yet, for Gil and us, we’re able to see how essential it was that these great artists lived in the time they did and that when they produced their art, there was a timeliness to it all and in conjunction with so many fantastic artists of the same era, it was amazing to see the talent in the very same room that so many artists tended to ignore. One almost grimaces when Zelda Fitzgerald (Allison Pill) talks about how easy it would be to write something as good as Cole Porter’s work.

It’s a testament to self-control that Woody Allen goes on to develop the story the way he does. A good part of me thinks that the Woody Allen of the ‘70s would have made a much different ending to this film, one a bit more cynical and biting and completely blinded by Allen’s own flights of fancy. The sensibilities of Midnight in Paris actually have me interested in watching what Allen has made in the past ten years, although I’m sure a lot of Allen fans will quickly dissuade such an exploration.

Midnight in Paris shares many sentiments I agree with. It’s certainly a film I’d encourage anyone with a creative inkling to seek out, but as a film I found it on the underwhelming side. As often happens, I like the ideas of a film more than the end product. It’s not a bad effort and it certainly doesn’t squander its idea, but it spends too many moments wallowing in a terrible and cliché story in the present that I spent a good portion of this film yearning to be dragged back into the past.

© 2011 James Blake Ewing