May 29, 2011
Midnight in Paris
I read an interview with Woody Allen in which the opening sequence of Manhattan (1979) is compared with the one of Midnight in Paris. For me, this provides an interesting assessment of how far he is from the days when he was at the top of his creative powers. For Midnight in Paris starts with a series of shots of that city with very nice music, just like Manhattan did years ago. But the opening of Manhattan, with those gorgeous black and white shots of New York, and the rousing, perfect music of George Gershwin, felt like a love poem to the city and really stirred the soul. In contrast, the opening of Midnight in Paris feels like you are browsing postcards at a souvenir shop near Notre Dame. Maybe my romance with Paris has soured a little bit, and the sight of all those buildings that look like wedding cakes no longer stirs my heart just so. But I suspect it's not really my fault, or Paris'. The opening of Manhattan was a bracing, original and lovely artistic choice, while this just feels pedestrian, as generic and devoid of humanity as a postcard, as if it's there to plump up the movie's running time.
As recent Woody Allen movies go, however, Midnight in Paris is far more charming than its predecessors. At the center of this film, Allen has conceived a lovely idea. What if you could go back to your romantic notion of Paris in the 1920's? Like Cinderella, at the stroke of midnight, successful Hollywood screenwriter and budding novelist, Gil Pender (Owen Wilson) is transported magically to some enchanted evenings with famous creative and literary heroes of the day. By daytime, alas, he is burdened by an undermining bitch of a fiancee (poor Rachel McAdams), her hideous, wealthy Republican parents, and by Allen's direction, which insists that every one of his leading men should be a doppelganger for him. As the Magnificent Arepa points out, the neurotic self-involvement and the exaggerated nebbishness used to work as long as it was Woody Allen who played himself (when he wasn't too old to be leering at romantic interests who were decades younger). His persona, his nerdy looks, and his extremely funny delivery made him a very endearing pain in the ass. But if you ask gifted actors like Kenneth Branagh in Celebrity (!), Josh Brolin in You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, (!) and now Owen Wilson to do that shtick, it is ridiculous. So a lot conspires against the modicum of charm of Midnight in Paris: peremptory writing, a total disregard for believable characters or coherent plots, and a director who lets his lead actors flounder, and who makes them look bad when they are supposed to be, at the very least, engaging.
Gil's fiancee does nothing but disparage and humiliate him, alone and in public, and yet, like a doormat, he never reacts to her growing cruelties. So he looks like a schmuck and she like a total harpie. Why would we be invested in people like this? Why are they together at all? She has not one redeeming quality. To add to her disagreeableness, the costume designer saddles McAdams, a very attractive woman, with unflattering clothes. And even though Owen Wilson is a likable actor, as the movie goes on and he is unable to be anything but a wimp full of Woody Allenish tics, one wants to smack him upside the head and tell him to grow a pair. In what world does a grown, successful writer have to go back to a museum and ask the tour guide if she thinks that a man could be in love with two women? Is he so clueless? Why doesn't he go to the Academie Française and ask them there?
In the very bad, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, Josh Brolin plays the exact same character, a misunderstood and unappreciated writer (mostly harangued by his terrible wife, played by Naomi Watts). To make luminous actresses like McAdams and Watts look and sound awful takes a very sinister talent, and I am sick of it.
Let's, for the sake of argument, compare this to another comedy. In Bridesmaids, the characters, who struggle with the problems of real people, not only provoke drama but they confront it head on, actually piling it up, with hysterical results. Bridesmaids is a wildly exaggerated comedy, but it is rooted in psychological reality. Allen writes characters that whine and mope and kvetch and ponder their self-absorbed lots in life, but that avoid conflict entirely. Even comedy needs characters one can identify with.
As always in his films, the actors are A-list. They all play wispy caricatures, but some of them sink their choppers into the opportunity with gusto. Marion Cotillard, playing some sort of feminine ideal with no personality, is constitutionally incapable of being uninteresting, so she tries to make this woman radiate some sort of intensity. Alas, a piece of cardboard and a roll of tinfoil have more onscreen chemistry than her and Owen Wilson. Adrien Brody has oodles of fun and is very charming as Salvador Dalí. All the bit players are excellent: Tom Hiddleston and Allison Pill as Scott and Zelda, Corey Stoll as Hemingway, and Kathy Bates as Gertrude Stein. For your information, even Carla Bruni is natural and charming as a Rodin Museum guide. Allen's fans are delighted at being able to laugh, like insiders at a club, at the easy cultural references like the Fitzgeralds, Hemingway, Cole Porter, T.S. Eliot, Picasso, Gertrude Stein, Buñuel, Dalí, etc. Allen could have exploited more comedy opportunities with the incongruity of a visitor from a future time, and the jokes are fun but facile.
The cinematography by Darius Khondji is lovely, and as usual, Allen chooses a wonderful soundtrack of American and French classics. The charm of Midnight in Paris mostly lies in a lovely sense of nostalgia, realized very effectively with no special effects. The bittersweet idea that people of every age pine for and romanticize the days of yore is a golden nugget and makes the nostalgia thread of this movie a sweet delight. At the stroke of midnight, we are transported to the 1920's in the guise of a period car coming down a Paris street. The illusion is beautifully simple and magic. Every time we have to go back to today's world and its overbearing characters, we feel the pang and, like Gil, want to be transported back to the days when Woody Allen's movies were better.