Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris (Sony Pictures Classics) is a trifle in both senses of the word: a feather-light, disposable thing, and a rich dessert appealingly layered with cake, jam, and cream. It’s the first Woody Allen movie in a long time that feels good going down, even if it doesn’t stay in your stomach for long afterward.
After an exquisite opening montage showing Paris in different lights and weathers (the lambent cinematography is by Darius Khondji), we meet Gil Pender (Owen Wilson), a successful but creatively frustrated Hollywood screenwriter on vacation in Paris with his fiancee, Inez (Rachel McAdams), and her parents. Once there, the couple meet up with an insufferable professor friend (Michael Sheen, having a grand old time) and his girlfriend. On a tour of Versailles, they talk about Gil’s novel in progress, which centers around the theme of historical nostalgia; Gil is obsessed with Paris in the ‘20s, the era of Cole Porter and Gertrude Stein. That night, Gil skips a post-dinner nightclub outing to wander the streets of the city in a pleasantly tipsy haze. When a vintage Peugeot full of partyers pulls up and invites him to join their revels, Gil asks few questions—until he finds himself at a party attended by F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, with Cole Porter himself at the piano. Somehow—never mind how, as science fiction is not Allen’s beat—Gil has discovered a crack in the time-space continuum that opens between the ‘20s and the present when the clock strikes midnight.
At the legendary Polidor restaurant that night, Gil also meets Ernest Hemingway (Corey Stoll), who communicates, hilariously, only in short, Anglo-Saxon bursts of speech about courage and manliness. Hemingway agrees to look at Gil’s manuscript, but when Gil comes back after fetching it at his hotel, not only has Hemingway vanished, so has the Polidor. Over the course of the next few days, Gil’s life becomes divided between the long, dull days with the increasingly irritated Inez and the brief, magical nights when he dances the Charleston with Djuna Barnes and frequents salons at Gertrude Stein’s (Kathy Bates). Gil also begins to fall for Adriana (Marion Cotillard), an impossibly beautiful all-purpose muse who bounces from Modigliani’s bed to Picasso’s to Hemingway’s.
For its first half, Midnight in Paris comes close to being a conflict-free fantasy, a space of pure play. The encounters between the naive, awestruck Gil and his impossibly glamorous literary heroes read like A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Courtby way of Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure (and the luscious production design by Anne Seibel is a time-travel machine all its own). But right around the midpoint, a melancholy note creeps in: As happened in The Purple Rose of Cairo, Allen’s earlier, much deeper exploration of the dangers of the romantic imagination, our hero begins to learn that there’s no such thing as an ideal era, a time free of conflict and regret. Adriana herself idealizes the Belle Époque of 19th-century Paris; the denizens of that era (as we learn from a too-brief visit with Toulouse-Lautrec and Gauguin at Maxim’s) disdain their own degraded modernity and look back longingly on the Renaissance.
A huge part ofthe charm of Midnight in Paris derives from the finely calibrated casting, long one of Allen’s superpowers as a director. Adrien Brody has a delightful cameo as Salvador Dalí, who longs to create a Surrealist painting of Gil next to a rhinoceros. And though Zelda Fitzgerald disappears far too quickly after her initial appearance (what better Woody Allen character than the fascinating, unstable Zelda?), choosing Alison Pill to play her was a masterstroke. Owen Wilson, against all odds, makes a sensational Allen proxy—instead of impersonating those famous vocal cadences as Kenneth Branagh did in Celebrity (shudder), he leavens the director’s trademark melancholia with his own sunny Texas charm. (Midnight in Paris also makes you realize just how dreadfully Owen Wilson is currently being used by Hollywood. Here we have this smart, funny, urbane young man in his prime—who also happens to look like a surferboy angel—and we’re watching him in Marley & Me and Hall Pass?)
“I’m having an insight,” Gil tells Adriana one night, as they whisper behind a red velvet curtain at Maxim’s. “It’s a minor one, but still.” Midnight in Paris is a minor Woody Allen film, but still. For a director whose recent work has at times seemed irredeemably contemptuous and bitter (after Whatever Works, I almost swore him off for good), this small, delicately realized fable feels—appropriately enough—like a visit to another time.
Read Juliet Lapidos on watching all of Woody Allen’s films. Yes, all of them.