Saturday, February 25, 2012

Director's Spotlight #4.25: Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris (revisited)

In the world of film, it is not the actor, nor the screenwriter, nor the producer who makes or breaks the movie. Whatever their contributions, it is ultimately the director who is the sole author of the film. Every month, Director’s Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. February’s director is comedy legend Woody Allen, and the month ends with a revisit to the director’s most recent film, 2011’s Midnight in Paris.
Original Grade: C+ (click here for original review)
Revised Grade: 57 (B-)
And so Director’s Spotlight comes full-circle with Midnight in Paris, Woody Allen’s most successful film (nearly a $150 million gross) and a nominee for four Oscars: Best Art Direction, Best Original Screenplay (Allen’s fifteenth nomination), Best Director (Allen’s seventh nomination), and Best Picture (third Allen film to be nominated for this after Annie Hall and Hannah and Her Sisters). The film is Allen’s best reviewed work in many years, but there’s dissent among certain Allen fans that the film has too many of the same problems of his other latter-day films. I was among those dissenters, and I wrote in my mostly dismissive review that the film suffered from “hateful characters, over-familiarity, and the feeling that the director isn’t fully engaged.” Here’s the thing: every single one of my criticisms of the film still stands. Midnight in Paris is not the major triumph many have held it up to be, and the film’s problems are still painfully obvious two months after the first viewing. But months later, the film’s assets narrowly outweigh its considerable flaws. Narrowly.
Gil Pender (Owen Wilson) is a Hollywood screenwriter visiting Paris with his fiancĂ©e 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.
Midnight in Paris will likely give Allen his third Best Original Screenplay win after previous wins for Annie Hall and Hannah and Her Sisters- not that it matters to him (he never shows at the Oscars, with one notable exception as he paid tribute to New York shortly after 9/11). It’s more than a little annoying, considering that Allen’s screenplay is the film’s greatest weakness. The actors playing the jazz age characters do credible, sometimes even inspired impressions of famous literary figures (Stoll and Brody have a few reasonably amusing scenes), but there’s no depth to their interactions with Gil. There’s really no joke other than that Hemingway and Dali are acting like Hemingway and Dali. It’s amusing, to a point, but after a while, it’s a big case of the “so whats”. Alison Pill’s interpretation of Zelda Fitzgerald is the only one of the famous Lost Generation figures who approaches anything more than simplistic highbrow references.
It’s best to get the film’s worst bits out of the way right now: the modern scenes are terrible. Rachel McAdams is a terrific actress with a natural warmth and charm, none of which she gets to show as Allen casts her as a horrible, castrating shrew who belittles everything Wilson does (why is he even with her?). Sheen is nearly as bad as a the insufferable kind of blowhard Allen trotted out for one joke in Annie Hall. Here, it’s both extended and unfunny. Whenever Wilson shows insight towards any of the exhibits they’re visiting, McAdams insists that he shuts up and listens to Sheen. Just as bad are McAdams’ cartoons of conservative parents who hate France, stand up for Tea Party Republicans, and think Wilson is a communist. None of these actors are to blame for how intolerable the characters are- Allen shows his contempt for certain types of people in these scenes (conservatives, certain types of intellectuals, certain types of women who may or may not be modeled after one Mia Farrow) and doesn’t paint them as anything more than stereotypical Ugly Americans. The Woody Allen of the past might have given McAdams or Sheen more facets to make them more sympathetic, a la Diane Keaton in Manhattan, but Allen has no interest in developing these characters. It doesn’t even matter that Sheen’s character is ultimately right about Wilson’s fascination with a past time (the “Golden Age Fallacy”)- he’s an idiot, and Wilson’s Allen-surrogate spends time with F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, so nyah.
When Wilson’s character does reach his “minor insight”- that everyone at every time wishes for a past “Golden Age” without realizing that they’re in the middle of something great- it’s a pretty minor insight indeed. How did Midnight in Paris take off the way it did? It doesn’t tell us anything new. It certainly doesn’t explore new territory: the worst moments are either taken from better Allen films of the past (Sheen from Annie Hall) or bad films of the past (McAdams from any terrible, misogynistic Woody Allen film from the past fifteen years). The best moments, meanwhile, feel like they’re part of better Woody Allen films as well.
The film’s opening, a series of Parisian locations set to great jazz music, feels like a context-free (if pretty) aping of Manhattan’s opening (why didn’t Allen have Wilson and McAdams talk about Paris over the opening? Blown opportunity there). Allen explored the jazz age in more satisfying ways in Zelig and Sweet and Lowdown, and it’s never as funny a look at the time period as the equally minor Bullets Over Broadway. The film’s fantastical premise is similar to that of The Purple Rose of Cairo, but Midnight in Paris isn’t anywhere close to being as moving or as funny.
Why, then, did I enjoy Midnight in Paris marginally more the second time than I did the first? Glaring as the film’s flaws are, and superficial as the whole thing is, there’s one section that’s just as lovely as it aspires to be: Wilson’s romance with Cotillard. Wilson is a far more affable Woody Allen surrogate than past incarnations (perhaps the best since Allen himself) where Cotillard is effortlessly charming. Allen has said in interviews for the film that Wilson is a natural actor, and it’s the truth- Wilson never tries to be too much like Woody Allen, but rather lets their seemingly disparate personas gel. The films only truly funny moments come not from Allen’s dialogue but from Wilson’s reactions to seeing his jazz-era heroes before his eyes. Allen has also said that he was more interested in the romantic subplot than the rest of the film, and it shows. Wilson and Cotillard’s scenes together have the warmth, elegance, and grace of the best late-period Woody Allen films (see also: Sweet and Lowdown, Vicky Cristina Barcelona). When Allen and the great cinematographer Darius Khondji (best known for Seven) shoot the two together, Paris feels nearly as intoxicating and wonderful as Barcelona did in Vicky Cristina Barcelona. Let’s hope that Allen gets all the good stuff (romance, the beauty of the city) and none of the bad stuff (do I need to elaborate) when he takes a trip to Rome later this year with Nero Fiddled.
Midnight in Paris isn’t wholly successful, it’s exploration of the jazz age is far too insubstantial, and the film never reaches the promise of being a new great Woody Allen film. Allen has gravitated back and forth between films where he clearly didn’t care (You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger) and films where he cared, but he wanted to share a horrific worldview (Anything Else), with a few happy mediums in between (Vicky Cristina Barcelona). Midnight in Paris is an oddity in that it’s a cross between “I don’t care” (the period setting), the hateful “these types of people are stupid” stuff (almost everything in the contemporary world), and the sublime, graceful romantic plots (Wilson’s late-film relationship with a pretty French girl is nice). Despite all the considerable drawbacks, there are minor pleasures to be had in Midnight in Paris. Just don’t call it a masterpiece, don’t call it one of the best films of the year, and please don’t give Woody Allen another Oscar for it. The man can do better.

With all of that in mind, I'll be giving my Oscar Predictions tomorrow morning. As for next month's Director's Spotlight: prepare for March coverage of Jonathan Demme, director of Stop Making Sense, Something Wild, Married to the Mob, The Silence of the Lambs, and Rachel Getting Married.

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