Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Man on Film: Midnight In Paris

Having seen the bulk of Woody Allen's directorial output over the past two decades, I can say with little trepidation that Midnight In Paris was the most enjoyable film of his since at least Sweet and Lowdown. In fact, this was such a triumphant return to form that it forced, if only for a moment, the question into my mind as to whether Woody Allen had made a film this good since Manhattan. That Midnight In Paris forces these thoughts speaks volumes.

The primary problem with most of Allen's films over the past 15 years (and really, this could be said of everything he has done since the mid-1970s) is that they are essentially all the same three or four films. His big stand-out film, Match Point, was all fine and dandy--unless you had seen Crimes and Misdemeanors within the fifteen years prior to having seen Match Point.

With the exception of the fact that Allen's protagonist is in a relationship that is unfulfilling but is not entirely aware of the fact that it is not meeting his needs, this is a different film. A time-travel movie. A literary movie. A love letter to Paris. An historical comedy. A film about romanticism and its trappings. It is all of these things and so much more.

Perhaps the fact that I majored in English Literature factors in too heavily to my love of this film, but its  ventures into the world of The Lost Generation and the Belle Epoque bring icons from history to life with such vivacity and attention to detail that it is nearly impossible not to marvel at. For proof, one need look no further than Corey Stoll's brilliant turn as Ernest Hemingway. Every word that comes out of his mouth, every turn of every phrase is the perfect distillation of Hemingway's treatises on the masculine ideal delivered in a way as sparse and direct as if Hemingway had written them himself. And it is hilarious. Every time Stoll opens his mouth gold comes out. There are other 1920s and 1890s Parisian cameos, but Stoll's Hemingway would be enough to carry these portions by itself.

Luckily that is not necessary. Midnight In Paris affords Owen Wilson an opportunity to return to the sort of character that suits him best. With a few exceptions, Wilson has spent the past decade chasing commercial success as a leading man in mainstream comedies. This typically means he is cast into roles that do not cater to his strengths, ones that don't relish in insecurity and pathos. Here, Wilson gets to channel what appears to be his inner self, the self he wrote parts for in Bottle Rocket and The Royal Tenenbaums. For Owen Wilson, much like Woody Allen, Midnight In Paris is a return to form, reminding us of the promise that once seemed to be boundless.

Wilson plays Woody Allen, at least if he were a screenwriter attempting to write his first novel. He is engaged to Inez (played by the always comely Rachel McAdams), who just wants her fiancee Gil to settle for a career path in which money and security take precedence to chasing something creatively stimulating. Gil is a dreamer, an idealist, a romantic. Inez is an uninspiring pragmatist. As they kick around Paris, both with her conservative parents and her pseudo-intellectual college friend Paul (the pitch-perfect Michael Sheen), he finds himself extracting himself from social situations to roam the city at night. As he gallivants around Paris, he finds himself transported back to the era he's so enamored with each night at the stroke of midnight. It is not bogged down with quantum mechanical explanations for the time travelling. This is light-hearted fare.

What really matters though is that Allen's love for character, city, and history comes through at every moment. The art history and literary influence is not simply for the literati but enrich the film throughout without feeling inaccessible. Allen has made his first great film of the new millenium.

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