Midnight in Paris

Midnight in Paris

I’ve gotten to where I don’t even have high expectations for Woody Allen movies any more. I’ve seen at most half of his films of the last 25 years, and almost all of them have been just OK for me, if that. (A rare exception being Sweet and Lowdown, which I liked quite a bit.)

Midnight in Paris is a winner though. I was drawn in early, and it kept my interest reasonably well throughout.

Owen Wilson is the protagonist, so the first question is whether he, in effect, is the “Woody Allen character,” the one Allen himself would have played if he were still young enough. And the second question, I suppose, is if so, how well does he pull it off?

I would say Wilson is not the conventional Allen lead. Or he is only in the broadest sense that, yes, he’s an adult male, he makes quips, he’s concerned with philosophical issues about life and relationships, and he attracts more than his share of younger, hot women. So while it’s not like Allen has made a movie with a female protagonist, or a Rambo-like action hero for a protagonist, or anything that far removed from when he used to routinely play the lead in his own movies, Wilson is not simply doing a Woody Allen impersonation in this movie.

Will Ferrell in Melinda and Melinda, and Larry David in Whatever Works were clearly stand-ins for Allen. Wilson here overlaps with the conventional Allen protagonist far less; he’s more comparable in that regard to Sean Penn in Sweet and Lowdown.

But as far as how good Wilson is in the lead, he’s certainly not as laugh out loud funny as Allen in Allen’s classic comedies from the ’60s and ’70s, but this isn’t a film of nonstop terrific gags, so there’s no reason he should be. Overall, I thought he was a very likable character and nailed this part. He’s very much what this film needed at its center.

Probably as agreeable as any Woody Allen protagonist since Allen himself.

Most Allen films are set in New York, and in some of them the city itself is so prominent as to function as one of the main characters. The films do not just happen to be filmed in New York or set in New York; they celebrate New York.

In this movie, Paris gets that treatment. If anything, this film is an homage to Paris more than any previous Allen film is an homage to New York.

Wilson is a successful writer of mainstream, artistically empty Hollywood drivel, but he craves to be a more serious artist. He is working on a novel that he hopes will take his life and career in a new direction.

Midnight in Paris takes place with Wilson on an extended trip to Paris with his gorgeous fiancée and her wealthy right wing parents. He has had enough experience with Paris to have fallen in love with it. He routinely extols its many virtues and speculates about one day living there, though he is especially enamored with the historic Paris of the 1920s, and the many American and other writers, artists and assorted celebrities that gathered there during that time.

The fiancée and the parents are perfectly happy to sample Paris’s most famous attractions as tourists, but they have no understanding or admiration for Wilson’s deeper connection to the city, nor certainly for his hopes and dreams that he can somehow become more than a hack, albeit very well-paid, screenwriter.

Wilson gets lost one night walking back to his Paris hotel alone. The clock strikes midnight, and suddenly he finds himself in the Paris nightlife of the 1920s. For multiple subsequent nights, he returns to the same spot, and each midnight the same thing happens.

In this parallel life of his, he meets and parties with a whole host of big names from that earlier era. Furthermore, they all readily accept him as an equal, someone they can pal around with, discuss art with, even initiate a romance with.

He reassures a drunk and suicidal Zelda Fitzgerald of her husband Scott’s devotion to her. Gertrude Stein reads and gives him feedback on a draft of his novel. Ernest Hemingway gives him advice on life. He suggests a film idea to Luis Buñuel. And so on.

This aspect of the film will be especially entertaining to those who are highly knowledgeable about these elite 1920s Paris artists’ circles (though then again, maybe they’d also be in a position to find the portraits insulting and simplistic, or the historical inaccuracies jarring). I do not count myself in that number. I am familiar with all or almost all of the historical characters mentioned in the movie, but for some I know nothing but the name (e.g., Man Ray), while even for most of those with whom I am a little more familiar than that, I don’t know them well. I’ve read pretty much Hemingway, and a fair amount of Fitzgerald, so those are probably the two I know best, but I’m far from a scholar on either of them.

Still, my knowledge of these folks I would guess is well above the average person in the population, especially the average young person. So I’m sure some of the references, some of the humor, went over my head, but I suspect for many moviegoers these folks might as well be fictional characters.

I enjoyed Midnight in Paris more when I settled into a certain understanding of its form. It doesn’t have the feel of a science fiction, time travel movie. Or at least seen that way it would be a failure to me. There are too many things that don’t add up. You’d think, for one, that a person in his position could and would do a lot more to prove that he was from the future—even something as simple as showing people the contents of his wallet. There are also the usual time travel anomalies where some of the things he says and does back then would alter those people’s futures, which would in turn alter what he knows of them now.

As a science fiction movie, it’s simply not realistic. (Realistic science fiction is not an oxymoron. Just because a story involves some futuristic or imaginary technology or whatever, it can still be coherent and realistic in all other respects.)

Nor for that matter is it a science fiction comedy, where lack of realism wouldn’t be a fatal flaw. (Does anyone care that there are elements of Sleeper that don’t add up scientifically or logically?)

I would say instead that it’s fantasy. Either fantasy that’s in some sense “really” happening, like It’s a Wonderful Life, or a story that’s best understood as something the main character is dreaming or imagining.

There’s no reason a dream or daydream has to make complete sense. In a person’s fantasy about traveling back to the 1920s—unlike if it somehow really happened—it’s not surprising that he doesn’t spend more time trying to prove to people that he’s time traveling. It’s not surprising that virtually everyone he meets is someone we would know from history books decades later. It’s not surprising that all these famous people immediately let him into their lives, and that they respect him and his work.

It’s not surprising, also, that the best known personality traits of these famous people are exaggerated like the most prominent facial features in an editorial cartoonist’s depictions of politicians, nor that they tend in some cases to be amalgams of the people themselves and their characters. (Hemingway is at least as much like a Hemingway character as like Hemingway. Fitzgerald calls his buddies “old sport” in Gatsby fashion.) That’s pretty much what you would expect if someone from the 21st century who idolizes these people were to imagine what it would be like to hobnob with them, and not what you would expect if we really could go back to that time and observe them.

While it’s true that the celebrities are oversimplified—to fit the protagonist’s fantasies, and to provide humor for the film—it’s not taken to a ludicrous extreme. They’re generally not drastically different from their historical selves, and furthermore they’re mostly really nice, likable, in some cases wise, people. There’s no mystery why Wilson would want to travel in their circles.

I especially enjoyed Hemingway imparting his philosophy to Wilson. Sure, some of it’s there for the humor (e.g., Hemingway issuing general challenges to all around him at the club to fight), but he also firmly and articulately expresses certain profound views on life. He may be the one I’d most want to hang around with were I back in that milieu.

If anything, some of the characters in Wilson’s “real” life are even more simplistic, even less realistic. His shallow fiancée, her stick-up-their-ass parents, her professor friend (multiple times referred to in the movie itself as “pedantic”), etc. are there to represent certain types, to be foils for Allen’s humor, to make more stark the choices Wilson faces.

The degree to which they’re caricatures I find acceptable and fitting for a fantasy, especially a fantasy with elements of comedy.

By way of contrast, the girlfriend and her parents in Allen’s Whatever Works I would say are more unrealistic stereotypes, and even there it’s arguably excusable for a comedy. As far as that goes, there are plenty of characters in supposedly serious movies that are at least as caricaturish as these, in genres where that is more clearly a flaw.

I like the filmmaking itself here. Allen seems at the top of his game in many respects. The cinematography, the music, the pacing—it’s all a pleasure from start to finish. There aren’t nearly as many laughs as in the pure comedies of his early career, but what humor there is consistently works. Yes, there’s a certain amount of that trademark halting speech and characters interrupting each other—that Allen seems to think constitutes realistic dialogue but instead comes across as rehearsed and unnatural—but less so than in most of his films. So even the dialogue is surprisingly smooth and professional.

I enjoyed watching Wilson’s adventures, and being carried along in his love affair with Paris and with the historical figures who mean so much to him. I appreciated the lessons he learns, which are not so much that obsessing about the past is all bad, but that you can hold onto those loves and continue to revere your idols in ways that will inspire you to be more fully alive and able to see the beauty and love around you in the present. It’s not that the good old days stunk, but that you can follow your dreams and make the present age—which will be someone else’s good old days down the road after all—wonderful as well.

Midnight in Paris has a few good chuckles, but it’s not a hilariously funny comedy. It’s thought-provoking and succeeds on an emotional level, but it’s not as deep in those respects as the best dramas. It’s understandable and has enough of a plot to keep one engaged, but it’s not exactly spellbinding as a story. It’s simply a competent film that does everything at least reasonably well.

At his age I don’t know how many more films Allen has in him, but if he can still come up with gems like this genuinely pleasurable movie I hope it’s many.