Midnight in Paris,
directed by Woody Allen
(Sony, 2011)

"You're in love with a fantasy."

After viewing the intro shots to Midnight in Paris, you would think those words were meant for Woody Allen. He entrances us with a steady stream of shots pictorializing the City of Light through the eyes of a hopelessly enamored tourist --they are flawless "god, I wish I was there" postcards.

However, the cynical choke-hold is actually uttered by one of his very own characters. Inez (Rachel McAdams) is interrupting her fiance Gil's (Owen Wilson) steady stream of vocal blathering about the beauty of Paris. The young couple is accompanying Inez's parents on a business trip and taking time off from the Hollywood screenwriting game while Gil works on his first novel.

Gil's awe of Paris is endearing especially in contrast to Inez's high-society snobbery and jaded nature. But it isn't until her friends Paul (Michael Sheen) and Carol (Nina Arianda) show up that the haughtiness is taken to a hilarious level highlighted by Gil's contrasting bumbling nature. Sheen and Arianda are uncannily superb as the ultimate snooty couple; listen to her butcher French names on the first try and then quickly repeat them with an American high school-learned accent, and he is the know-it-all professor who has no qualms about starting arguments over historical facts with their French tour guide.

Next to them any normal person, such as the wide-eyed romantic Gil, looks like a fanny pack-wearing, upside-down map-reading tourist. Wilson's style of acting is adept for such a role, because all that's required of him is a bouncy, cheerful persona to gently poke fun of the starry-eyed tourist stereotype. On the other hand, McAdams has to perform a balancing act playing a character patronizing enough to be pointedly disliked by the audience, but believable enough not to be missed when Gil's antics in Paris move the storyline away from her.

Because as it turns out, Gil's fantasy of Paris is specifically of Paris in the 1920s. The film turns a bit theatrical when a resounding chime of a clock tower signals that it's midnight during one of Gil's escapist evening strolls, and magically an old-fashioned car pulls up and whisks him away. After that each night he hitches a ride to a time when Paris was the metropolitan of romance and art teeming with the likes of Hemingway (Corey Stoll), the Fitzgeralds (Tom Hiddleston and Alison Pill), Salvador Dali (Adrien Brody), Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates) and more. Allen splits the remainder of the film's time between the antics of the present-day pretentious elite and the cheeky, goofy comedy of Gil's encounters with famous artists of the past.

Allen's use of Hemingway and the Fitzgeralds is brilliant and proof that, even though his writing and directing career has spanned decades, his imagination is as inventive as ever. He writes them as caricatures of their posthumous star personas -- Stoll plays a Hemingway that speaks like he writes, in streaming journalistic monologues, and Pill as the socialite Zelda Fitzgerald has an Alabama drawl and whiskey-induced temper. Marion Cotillard plays Adriana, a mistress and muse of Picasso, who becomes Gil's love interest, and since Allen's writing is so playful the conflict of an affair doesn't feel so conflicting -- even if she is from another decade.

Instead, like Gil, we get caught up in the fun of it all and bounce happily along on this comical and magical ride set against the breathtaking sets of both modern and 1920s Paris. This is the kind of film that was made to be relished on a theater screen if only for the still frames that capture the beauty of Paris shot with an adoration that is distinctly Woody Allen.

review by
Molly Ebert

20 August 2011

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