I’ve always said that Woody Allen on a bad day is better than everybody else on Sunday. Since he makes more movies than anyone else-and turns them out faster than procreating gerbils–this adage has become a reality. But Mr. Allen is an artist brimming with vitality and imagination, always ready to explore new ideas. When they work, the screen lights up like a Yuletide tree in Rockefeller Center, and Midnight in Paris works in spades–diamonds, clubs and hearts, too. It’s his best movie in years, and 94 minutes of total enchantment.
The most fabulous cinematography of the City of Light since Vincente Minnelli’s An American in Paris makes the birthday-cake architecture look clean, scrubbed and beautiful in this celebration of all things French, without the attitude. Dress it in whimsy and romance, and Mr. Allen’s valentine to the city he loves almost as much as New York comes to life in three separate decades, giving us all the Paris of our dreams. In the process of time travel, the director almost manages to solve the mystery of snaggle-toothed, hook-nosed Owen Wilson, a terrible actor with an obnoxious voice who is absolutely perfect as Gil, a nerdy, wide-eyed Hollywood hack who is transported by the magic of the city of his dreams into finding his inner adult. Gil has come to Paris with his superficial bottle-blonde, mannied and peddied Beverly Hills fiancée Inez (Rachel McAdams) and her rich, uptight, right-wing parents on one of her father’s business trips. While they shop for bargains and kvetch about the French, Gil, dazzled by everything from the Eiffel Tower at night to the Left Bank brasseries and bistros glistening in the rain, fantasizes about what this haven for American expatriates must have been like in earlier times, before global warming, suicide bombers and traffic jams. He’s smart and successful, but he never had the courage to live in a garret while writing the great American novel like his literary idols of the 1920s. After Inez runs into an old friend from the groves of academe (a pompous know-it-all amusingly played by Michael Sheen) who even corrects the tour guide at Versailles, and her parents attend a wine tasting and insist California grapes are better, a disgusted Gil wanders off on his own and gets lost on his way back to the Bristol. On the stroke of midnight, chimes from Notre Dame cathedral are heard (could it be Quasimodo himself pulling the rope in the bell tower?) a classic Peugeot from the past pulls up, like the pumpkin coach from Cinderella’s ball, and a group of revelers in Roaring Twenties costumes offer Gil a ride, with a feisty flapper named Zelda Fitzgerald (the delicious Allison Pill) pouring Champagne and yelling, “C’mon, we’re going to a party for Jean Cocteau.” The joke livens up an otherwise uneventful evening, so Gil goes along, but once inside the car, he falls down the rabbit hole like Alice in Wonderland into another world, populated by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Cole Porter and Ernest Hemingway. Even the dead icons are believable.
Gil takes all of this preposterous fiction as seriously as a kid with a Buck Rogers moon ring searching the sky for a spaceship. He’s been working for years on a novel about a man who works in a nostalgia shop. (“Living in the past” is Inez’s flip evaluation of both Gil and his life.) But when Ernest Hemingway offers to show it to his friend Gertrude Stein, Gil is so overwhelmed he forgets to set a time and place. Rushing back to the place where he met his new friends, the bar has disappeared, replaced by a modern-day laundromat. The next day’s capricious delirium wreaks havoc on his relationship with the pragmatic Inez, but when the clock strikes midnight again, “Papa” Hemingway appears once more. A stoned Alice B. Toklas opens the door and in the parlor of their literary salon, Gertrude Stein (played with butch relish by Kathy Bates) introduces Gil to Salvador Dalí, Luis Buñuel, T.S. Eliot and an endless parade of historic legends who are probably more fun dead than alive. The culture clashes between eras provide some amusing bits only the fertile brain of Woody Allen could conjure. Gil wants to escape 2010 and stay in the 1920s, but nobody understands his warnings about “Republican Tea Party crypto-fascist airhead zombies.” He falls in love with the beautiful Arianne (Marion Cotillard), mistress and muse of Modigliani, Braque and Picasso, who confesses her own personal favorite period in Paris is la belle époque. Another chorus of midnight bells chimes and they are dancing through a swirl of floor-to-ceiling mirrors at Maxim’s in gold-leaf splendor and fin de siècle costumes right out of Colette’s Gigi and running into Toulouse-Lautrec at the Moulin Rouge. “A man in love with two women from different eras … I see a film!” cries Buñuel while Dalí (Adrien Brody makes a harrowing lookalike) gets it all down on a tablecloth. To tell more, or reveal how the centuries finally coalesce, would border on treason. But there is one very funny scene to watch for: Gil pitches an idea to Buñuel for a movie about people at a dinner party who cannot leave, and the great Spanish director not only fails to recognize his own plot for The Exterminating Angel but even asks, “Why don’t they just open the doors?”
Quixotic and eccentric, to be sure, but Mr. Allen is onto something here. Anyone who has read about Paris through the decades nurtures dreams of what the past was like. I once spent an entire day searching for a nonexistent Punch and Judy show in the Bois de Boulogne and trying to find the location of the legendary theatre of horror, the Grand Guignol. When I got there, it had been turned into an Exxon station. But Mr. Allen’s billet-doux to a breezier, simpler, yet more majestic Paris of yesterday has a message. While the past may not be perfect (“They don’t even have Zithromax!” grouses Gil), there’s nothing wrong with creating your own past as you go along. Owen Wilson’s bumbling mediocrity and flat, parboiled Texas accent make a perfect alter ego for the director himself, who is on the same page with the entire cast, investing every scene with bold comic energy. Even Carla Bruni, the first lady of France, excels in a flavorful cameo as a tour guide in the Rodin Museum. In a film so ripe with temptations for posturing, exaggeration and satirical overacting, nobody is anything less than natural, unpretentious and funny as hell. Gorgeously photographed by Iranian-born Darius Khondji, the film is so breathtaking that it’s worth a ticket for the cinematography alone. See it, and you’ll want to book a weekend in Paris with your next tax refund.
MIDNIGHT IN PARIS
Running time 94 minutes
Written and directed by Woody Allen
Starring Owen Wilson, Rachel McAdams, Marion Cotillard