Movie Review: “Midnight in Paris”

Souffle-light and long on charm, “Midnight in Paris” may not be as laugh-out-loud witty as the comedies of Woody Allen’s professional Belle Epoque. But it at least recaptures the warm glow so often missing from his last 20 uneven years of work.

“Midnight in Paris” is a taste of magic in the Parisian night, a romantic comedy that grows more magical as it goes along. It’s that rare Allen movie that is over well before we’d like it to be.

Owen Wilson gives his most effortless, unaffected performance to date as Gil, a rich California screenwriter vacationing in Paris with his smart but shallow shopaholic fiance, Inez (Rachel McAdams, not bad). She’s looking to furnish the Malibu beach house he’s buying. He dreams of giving it all up for “a little attic in Paris with a skylight.”

“Imagine this town in the ’20s,” he enthuses — “in the RAIN.” Writers and their rainy street imagery.

But Inez is not hearing it. And then you meet her stiff arch-Republican parents (Mimi Kennedy and Kurt Fuller). Not a family of romantics, but they recognize this “flaw” in Gil.  Inez would rather see the sights with her college crush, a mildly insufferable academic nicely underplayed by Michael Sheen. Gil just wanders the streets. At night. In the rain, when possible.

But he’s summoned into a passing, vintage Peugeot limo. And when he gets out, he’s at a party — hanging with Scott and tipsy Zelda — THE Scott and tipsy Zelda (Tom Hiddleston and Alison Pill).  Cole Porter is at the piano. And there’s Hemingway!

“Hi, Mr. Hemingway!”

Few actors could pull off the befuddled, but “What the hey” bemusement of Gil the way Wilson manages it. With a shrug, he accepts this supernatural twist in the City of Light, foists his unfinished novel on Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates, perfect) and swoons over Picasso’s latest mistress (a vivacious Marion Cotillard).

Allen has always rewarded viewers who share his tastes in music, movies, cities and books, and “Midnight in Paris” is both a lovely travelogue and an orgy of name-dropping — Luis Bunuel, Archibald MacLeish, Man Ray. Not every role and actor playing that role comes off, though Corey Stoll makes a bluff young Hemingway, measuring himself against every man he meets, trying to figure out how to become larger than life.

“Who wants to FIGHT?”

Adrien Brody has the big laugh-out-loud turn in the whirl of “Lost Generation” exiles, deliciously sending up Salvador Dali.

And anchoring it all is Allen’s Everyman, given a genuine touch of soul-searching earnestness by Wilson. Gil is a guy who recognizes the failings of nostalgia, that he’s over-romanticized Paris and the 1920s and rain. It takes falling in love with the voluptuous Adriana (Cotillard) to make him consider these truths, and whether they matter enough to make him stop taking those midnight walks or if he’ll just park it in his idealized city in an idyllic decade.

Allen doesn’t do nearly enough with Gil’s return to Inez and normalcy during daylight hours, though one scene, in which Gil interrupts the insufferable Paul’s lecture on a Picasso painting by correcting him — Gil has first hand knowledge, now — is “Annie Hall” hilarious. And when Allen has Gil give the suicidal Zelda Fitzgerald a Valium, I was reminded of every Allen monologue on Mahler, McLuhan, Faulkner or Fitzgerald.  “It’s a pill…from the future!” If nothing else, Allen knows these worthies well enough to have a great laugh at their expense.

After years of experiments in over-narrated melodramas and comedies that seem tone-deaf and out of touch, it’s as if Allen typed out Gertrude Stein’s line for Kathy Bates to read and for the first time in ages took it to heart.

“The job of the artist is not to succumb to despair.”

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some sexual references and smoking.

Cast: Owen Wilson, Marion Cotillard, Rachel McAdams, Michael Sheen, Kathy Bates, Adrien Brody

Credits: Written and directed by Woody Allen, produced by Letty Aronson, Jaume  and Roures and Stephen Tenenbaum. A Sony Pictures Classics release. Running time 1:34.

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