Look, it hasn't been a banner summer for movies. That might be a big understatement. Even the good ones, like Captain America: The First Avenger, have been fairly deeply flawed. So it was with considerable trepidation and a glimmer of hope that I ventured to Midnight in Paris, the latest film from the great Woody Allen. Within minutes the trepidation fizzled away -- my hopes for Allen's latest fully realized. I'm well aware that Woody Allen isn't for everyone, and I fully understand why, but I'd be hard-pressed to believe even someone who is lukewarm to negative about his films wouldn't rank Midnight in Paris as one of the best films of the summer.
Legendary film critic Roger Ebert summed all that up best in his review:
I consider [Allen] a treasure of the cinema. Some people take him for granted, although "Midnight in Paris" reportedly charmed even the jaded veterans of the Cannes press screenings. There is nothing to dislike about it. Either you connect with it or not. I'm wearying of movies that are for "everybody" -- which means, nobody in particular. "Midnight in Paris" is for me, in particular, and that's just fine with moi.
It's the very best of the summer so far for me, and that's because it delivers everything that makes Allen's body of work so great -- self-deprecating and self-aware humor, terrific writing, witty banter and a clear, but hardly oppressive theme and message running throughout.
Midnight in Paris is the tale of Gil Pender, a Hollywood screenwriter played by Owen Wilson, on vacation in Paris with his fiancee, Inez (played by Rachel McAdams) and her parents John (Kurt Fuller) and Helen (Mimi Kennedy). Pender is successful, but pretty clearly unhappy with his career, and the visit to Paris only heightens that sensation. Oh yes, he has great nostalgia for the Paris of the 1920s inhabited by Ernest Hemingway, Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein and so on.
Wilson talks wistfully of leaving his career in Hollywood and trying to finish his novel in a Paris studio apartment, a desire that is not well met by McAdams or her parents, who are quickly established as the type of snobby and materialistic horrible people you wouldn't want to meet at the local grocery store much less on the Champs-Elysees.
Pender can't quite seem to put his finger on what's causing all his melancholy, but we're meant to see it straight away. It's Inez and her wretched values and friends -- the most noteworthy being faux intellectual braggart Paul Bates played brilliantly by Michael Sheen -- of course.
To escape, Pender takes late-night strolls around Paris by himself, and at the stroke of midnight he is transported back to Paris in the 1920s via an antique car. Thus kicks off a series of hilarious cameos -- Kathy Bates as Stein, Adrien Brody as Salvador Dali, Allison Pill as Zelda Fitzgerald and so on, including the breakout star, for me, Corey Stoll as Hemingway.
Pender's nightly time travel is whimsical. He's overjoyed to find himself in the Roaring '20s even if he's also overwhelmed. He's thrilled to have Hemingway and Stein critique his novels and he's quick to develop a bond with Pablo Picasso's mistress Adriana, played by Marion Cotillard.
As it turns out, Adriana and Gil share one big thing in common -- an unhealthy affinity for an era that is not their own. A romantic spark develops between the pair, but as Adriana chases the Paris of the 1880s, just as he chased the '20s, Pender has an epiphany. His fully realized nostalgia for Hemingway and Fitzgerald is pleasant and wonderful, but it's also a diversion from the sometimes painful reality of the present.
He can't make it work with Adriana, but he also realizes -- thankfully! -- that he can't make it work with Inez, who it turns out has been sleeping with Bates (not Kathy) during his midnight jaunts around the Paris of 90 years ago.
Wilson is tremendous during the entirety of Pender's metaphysical and temporal journey. He channels Allen perfectly, only without all of the nebbishness that can be grating when the director and writer stars in his own work. But Wilson's performance is just one of many terrific ones. Midnight in Paris is the highest grossing film of Allen's career. I suppose if you wanted life to imitate art, maybe that honor should belong to Annie Hall, but the status befits Midnight nicely all the same.