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.