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Catching Up on 2011: Midnight in Paris

At this point in Woody Allen’s amazing career (and whether you love or loathe the filmmaker himself, you must acknowedge that the man’s writing and directing a film a year for the last forty-some odd years is an amazing achievement) I think that my level of enjoyment of his new films rests largely on which side of the familiar I feel his new films land.

Many critics object to the been-there, done-that feel that they get from Woody’s films these days. And I certainly feel that way myself, sometimes. But, on the other hand, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with a great artist continuing to explore certain themes or ideas throughout his work. Painters do that, as do musicians, so why not filmmakers?

Woody Allen’s latest film, Midnight in Paris, opens to a gorgeous montage of images of Paris, set to a piece of jazz music. This is a device that Mr. Allen has used before in his films, most notably in the opening to Manhattan (click here for my review of that seminal film), in which we’re presented with a montage of images of New York City, set to a wonderful piece of music by George Gershwin. Watching the opening of Midnight in Paris, one might sigh and say, “been-there, done-that, this is just the same as the opening of Manhattan.” But, despite the similarity, I still loved this device as a way to open the film. It felt like a stylistic echo of Mr. Allen’s previous work in a way that was like spoons fitting comfortably together in a drawer, rather than repetition done by an artist out of ideas. (It helps that the images of Paris in the opening to Midnight in Paris are so beautiful, and the jazz music so wonderful.)

On the other hand, when we’re presented with scenes, in the early part of the film, in which we meet Gil (Owen Wilson)’s shrewish wife Inez (Rachel McAdams) who is hassling him about his pursuit of “artistic integrity” and who thinks he should just relax and take the easy pay-check (that his Hollywood screenwriting job affords), or when the two argue about Paul (Michael Sheen), with whom Inez is enchanted but who Paul dismisses as an airhead intellectual, I felt that we were on the BAD side of the familiar.

I’ve seen those character types, and those arguments, time and time again in Woody Allen’s films, and I was disappointed to see those same “talking points” returned to here. These character dynamics were interesting to me in Woody’s films from thirty years ago, but now, to me, they feel played out. I would have rather seen Mr. Allen push himself a little bit to create some slightly different personality-types with which to surround Gil.

Luckily, those characters quickly drop out of the film as we follow Gil’s adventures in 1920’s Paris. In another lovely flight of fancy from Mr. Allen (harkening back, to me, in a GOOD familiar type of way, to some of his earlier films such as the wonderful The Purple Rose of Cairo), it seems that every night, when the chimes of midnight ring, Gil finds himself transported back in time to Paris of the 1920’s, a time-period that he idealizes as a “golden age.”

What follows is a series of anecdotes and a wonderful parade of actors and actresses embodying some of the great figures of art and music and literature: There is Tom Hiddleston, (who I’ve seen a lot this year between his work in Thor and War Horse), who I thought was quite memorable as F. Scott Fitzgerald, as was Alison Pill (Kim Pine in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World) as Zelda Fitzgerald. Corey Stoll gives a nice, manly interpretation of Ernest Hemingway, and I laughed when I saw that Kathy Bates had been cast as Gertrude Stein. She’s a hoot as the sort-of mother hen to her cavalcade of bizarre artists. I was also quite taken with Adrien Brody’s gonzo take on Salvador Dali. None of these actors really set about to produce a slavish imitation of these artists — at least, I don’t think they did! The goal, it seems to me, was more to create a comic interpretation of these oversize personalities, with an emphasis on the oversize. The result is a fun hodgepodge of personas for Gil to encounter as he careens his way through the Paris of his dreams.

Wich brings us to Owen Wilson, who I think was very strong as the central character, the Woody Allen stand-in. Another key aspect to the success of Woody Allen’s films these days is the success of the actor playing the Woody Allen main character (now that Woody is too old to do so himself). I tend to prefer when actors avoid trying to imitate the famous Woody mannerisms, and instead bring their own character to the role.  Mr. Wilson does that well.  It’s fun to see Owen Wilson’s laconic style merge with Woody Allen’s dialogue. The combination works beautifully, allowing Mr. Wilson to make the role his own. I was also quite smitten with Marion Cotillard as the beautiful, enigmatic young woman, Adrianna, who Gil meets in the Paris of the past. Ms. Cotillard is an ethereal presence, and her Adrianna doesn’t feel like someone I’ve met a hundred times before in prior Woody Allen films.

I also quite enjoyed Kurt Fuller and Mimi Kennedy as Inez’s parents. These are characters we HAVE seen before in prior Woody Allen films, but they both give such entertaining performances that I didn’t mind a bit.

Over-all, I quite enjoyed Midnight in Paris, and I think it’s one of Woody Allen’s strongest efforts from the past decade.  If Rachel McAdams’ character had been written as less of a shrew, I think this would have been a really terrific film. As it is, it’s an enjoyable flight of fancy. It’s a shadow of the masterpieces that Mr. Allen made in his prime, but it’s still an entertaining piece of work from one of the great masters of cinema.

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