The Inception of Woody Allen

Marion Cotillard amuses Owen Wilson in Paris.

In present day Paris, a hack Hollywood screenwriter named Gil (Owen Wilson) finds himself on an extended vacation with his spoiled dolt of a fiancé (Rachel McAdams) and her hateful parents (Kurt Fuller and Mimi Kennedy – both spot on).  Gil hopes to uncover some literary inspiration in the City of Lights so he can finally finish that novel he’s been working on.  Soon he finds himself on the streets at midnight and transported back to his favorite time-period – the 1920’s.  There he discovers himself in the midst of artistic geniuses and idols such as Ernest Hemingway, Cole Porter, the Fitzgeralds and Pablo Picasso.  While putting up with the inanity of his stifling present situation during the day, his dreams are fueled at night by his time-tripping walks where Gertrude Stein gives him manuscript critiques and he falls in love with one of Picasso’s mistresses, Adriana (Marion Cotillard).

Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris follows the trend of his latter-day persona where a change in venue invigorates his imagination.  His debut in London resulted in the fine drama, Match Point, though his three subsequent films there have produced diminishing returns.  Later a vacation to Spain produced his best film since Hannah and Her Sisters with Vicky Cristina Barcelona.  Beautifully photographed and with a charming soundtrack, this Parisian side-step isn’t as strong as those other entries mostly due to an almost fatal flaw in casting. 

I’ve never been a fan of Owen Wilson, and he’s okay here in the lead role.  I suppose it could’ve been worse – with say, I dunno, Luke Wilson.  Meanwhile, Rachel McAdams has never looked lovelier, but her line deliveries continue to render her performances akin to a wooden block.  Quite honestly, she’s terrible and always has been with her subdued Valley-girl cadences and vacant stares that she seems to only supplement with a slight rise in her voice and waving arms when she tries to evoke emotion.  Woody would’ve been better with a riskier choice in the lead role – perhaps a Joseph Gordon Levitt.  And it would’ve been nice to have seen his latter-day muse, the oft underrated Scarlett Johansson, in the McAdams role as her dead-pan and husky line deliveries have been perfectly married to Woody’s dialogue in the past.  Luckily the supporting cast is top-notch, especially Cotillard, who’s cat-like body language and breathy sing-song-y voice make her a perfect and versatile muse for any director with a keen eye for the ladies.

The real star of the film though is Paris itself, especially in those simplistically intoxicating opening frames which pleasantly seem to stretch on forever before the trademark Woody-talk begins over the opening credits.  And the story isn’t so much about any one character but instead is about an idea – that dreamers will always feels their present day is second fiddle to an earlier more romantic time.  It’s about the inception of nostalgia in an artist’s mind.  When we witness Wilson and Cotillard take a step even further back in time to the 1890’s (Adriana’s Golden Age) and Cotillard decides she wants to never leave and stay there forever – once can’t help but think of her femme-fatale character from Christopher Nolan’s Inception whom would rather die than wake up to reality.  Whether done consciously or not, it’s a clever tragicomic mirror image to Nolan’s dark dream, and Cotillard, again, is just the actress to become lost in the auteur’s fantasy.  However, Wilson’s character comes to a realization – that dream of an earlier more perfect time is how it’s always been generation after generation.

Woody, always the optimist, delivers his protagonist from that dream.  Unlike Nolan – whose hero only dreamed of “going home” – Woody’s alter-ego realizes that it might be nice to stay in present day Paris for awhile…in the rain…walking with a girl you actually like instead of the one you thought you should be with but really hated all this time.  The wandering writer in me couldn’t help but agree…though in my dreams it would be Clemence Poesy…or better yet…Scarlett Johansson at my side. 

Here in our shared cinematic fantasy the streets of Paris don’t violently fold in on top of themselves but instead stretch out meandering down wet cobblestone paths bathed in midnight lights – a pleasant reverie indeed even if it’s only as fleeting as the next idea that pops into our head and takes us elsewhere.



  1. You make some really interesting observations there Dave. The story does seem about an idea rather than the characters alone and that thought increases my curiosity.

    BTW, I am waiting for your review on The Tree of Life, when’s that coming up?

    Prakash – The Tree of Life has not opened up in Philly yet and I’ve just not had the chance to get up to NYC to see it. Hopefully this weekend I can finally see it. I feel so behind the curve on that one especially since it’s been at the top of my must see list. –DHS

    • Interesting comparison to Inception … hadn’t really thought about that. But I don’t really know how fair it is to compare every character an actor plays to one role. In my humble opinion, that is.

      That could spring from being typecast in high school drama as the bumbling idiot, just a thought.

      Marshall – it was more the “layers of dreams” vs. “layers of time” and the desire to want to stay in a dream/different time period that drew me to comparing the two films. I think they are startlingly similar in theme (one could argue Nolan’s Cobb was nostalgic for his past just as Woody’s Gil was nostalgic for the actual past) apart from the Marion Cotillard type-casting. –DHS

  2. I disagree about the casting. I think you’re correct in pointing out that Owen Wilson is a somewhat limited actor with an even more limited filmography, but I don’t know that JGL makes a lot of sense for the role. I’ll take Wilson over Gordon Levitt because for me, JGL is too young for that role. I like Wilson because to me he is an older guy who has a youthful spark. You get the sense that despite being naive, he has actually experienced quite a lot. JGL is a young man, and I think his being cast in that role makes it easier to dismiss Pender as just a naive idealist. That’s just my take though.

    Oh, and on top of that I actually liked Owen Wilson’s performance, so obviously we differ that there was a problem to begin with.

    Harry – you might be right about JGL. He was just someone I thought of off the top of my head who would’ve been riskier, and you make a good point about his age. Wilson’s performance was okay – he could’ve been worse. –DHS

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