Monday, June 27, 2011

Midnight in Paris: Grade A


Midnight in Paris (2011)

Owen Wilson, Rachel McAdams, Cathy Bates, Carla Bruni, Corey Stoll, Marion Cotillard, Adrien Brody; Writer-Director Woody Allen.

I confess, I saw this film in a cinema. No doubt It will be out on DVD later this year. It is a very traditional fairy tale, complete with a simplistic moral, “there’s no place like home,” or maybe “nostalgia isn’t what it used to be.” A rich American family visits Paris on business, along with the daughter’s fiancé (Wilson), an aspiring literary writer who loves the magic charm of Paris so much he wishes he could live there, preferably in the 1920’s. The shots of all the major Paris landmarks are stereotypically beautiful, stunningly so, as lovingly done as in Allen’s portraits of New York and London in his other movies.

Drunk and lost in the streets at midnight, Gil (Wilson) is invited into a 1920’s car and finds himself inexplicably at a 1920’s party, where he meets Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald while Cole Porter plays his tunes on the piano. There are some good jokes as he realizes that he has been magically transported back in time, a fact he comes quickly to accept without question. He promises Ernest Hemingway (Stoll) that he will bring his manuscript for a critical reading, but Hemingway insists that Gertrude Stein (Bates) would be a better reader.

On successive nights, Gil goes walking at Midnight and is picked up and taken back in time again. He meets Picasso, Bunuel, T.S. Eliot, Dali, and many other luminaries who populated Paris at the time, including one of Picasso’s girlfriends, Adriana (Cotillard), with whom he falls in love. During the day he returns to his hotel, becoming ever more estranged from his fiancée (McAdams) and obsessed by the possibility of living in 1920’s Paris permanently. Eventually he realizes that wouldn’t work out, but also realizes he will not marry his fiancée, leaves her, and stops the midnight time-traveling to live realistically in modern-day Paris.

Allen gets magnificent performances out of his actors. Wilson is his stand-in and has the confused, defensive stuttering and stooped posture down perfectly, but Wilson does much more than mimicry. He turns in an impressive, serious dramatic performance that I didn’t know he had in him. Cotillard is also stunning, literally unrecognizable compared to her dreadful role as Edith Piaf (La Vie en Rose, for which she inexplicably won an Oscar). Stoll as Hemingway and Bates as Stein are scene-stealers. So the performances are excellent, even if the subject matter is light and frothy silliness.

The story is a fairy tale, so does not bear scrutiny, but still, I yearned for more interior life in Wilson’s character. Surely he would doubt his sanity, just a little? He would have a few questions? He would be tempted to say interesting things to 1920’s characters about life a hundred years hence? Show a digital wristwatch maybe? The comic possibilities are endless, but Allen passes them all by. As close as we get to time-travel humor is when Wilson wonders if he could pick up a few Mondrians for 500 Francs, or when he gives a first-hand explanation of the meaning of a Picasso painting in the modern-day Louvre.

But it’s not that kind of movie. What kind is it? An airy fairy tale, no more. A trifle. A throwaway, with mesmerizing cinematography and several gripping performances, but no insight and only a light dusting of humor. But for all that, it was a very pleasant diversion on a hot Sunday afternoon when an air-conditioned theater sounded like a good idea.

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