Thursday, December 29, 2011

Midnight in Paris

Grade: 52 (C+)

Woody Allen’s first twenty-five years as a director gave the world some of the greatest comedies of all time, but it’s widely agreed that his output since the mid-nineties has been shaky, to say the least. With the exception of a handful of highlights (2008’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona), the Wood-man’s late period output has been a queasy balance between mediocre comedies (Small Time Crooks) and hateful misfires (Anything Else). This year’s Midnight in Paris has been hailed as a return to form and as one of his best films in years. But the film suffers from many of the same problems as other late-period Woody films: hateful characters, over-familiarity, and a feeling that the director isn’t fully engaged.

Gil Pender (Owen Wilson) is a Hollywood screenwriter visiting Paris with his fiancée Inez (Rachel McAdams), who doesn’t believe in his dreams to become an author in Paris. Her uber-conservative parents (Kurt Fuller and Mimi Kennedy) and blowhard friend (Michael Sheen) don’t help matters. One night, while wandering the streets of Paris, Gil stumbles into another place. Or rather, another time: 1920s Paris, where he hobnobs with his idols: F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald (Tom Hiddleston and Alison Pill), Ernest Hemingway (Corey Stoll), Salvador Dali (Adrien Brody), and Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates), who he even gets to give feedback on his novel. He also complicates matters by falling in love with Adriana (Marion Cotillard), a flapper girl who serves as a muse to many of the great artists of the day.

The film has two major assets: Wilson and Cotillard. Wilson seems like an odd fit for a Woody Allen-surrogate, due to his goofy, laid-back persona, but their personalities gel together remarkably well. He’s one of the most affable protagonists in a recent Woody Allen film; his presence makes the character far more bearable than he should be (Woody Allen-type characters are mostly jerks these days). Cotillard, one of the finest actresses working today, is radiant as Adriana; she and Wilson have a surprising amount of chemistry, and the film’s best sections focus on their romance.

The other actors all do a fine job as the various artistic figures but there’s not a lot of depth to their interactions with Gil. Woody (I can’t call him “Allen”) seems to think that having them show up and act like Ernest Hemingway or Salvador Dali is funny in and of itself; it’s all a bit self-satisfied, and only mildly amusing. At the end, the film only wants to come to a “minor revelation”, as Gil says. It’s a combination between a lesser version of The Purple Rose of Cairo and Manhattan set in Paris, and only Allen’s camera is energized; his writing is fairly lazy, almost as if we’re watching a first draft before he ever got to expand on anything.

It might all be a pleasant enough diversion if not for the bile that powers the present day scenes. McAdams is a wonderful actress with a natural charm; seeing her play another one of Woody Allen’s modern-day shrews is downright depressing. Sheen doesn’t fare much better as an insufferable intellectual that’s basically the “pretentious jerk in the movie theatre line” gag from Annie Hall extended. It typifies Woody Allen’s contempt of certain types of people, and that contempt is getting pretty old.

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