Woody Allen's new film, Midnight in Paris, is a marked improvement over recent failures such as Whatever Works and You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, in which Allen indulged in strident liberal politics and incoherent nihilistic musings. Although its focus is different, Midnight calls to mind some of Allen's most entertaining films, such as Play It Again, Sam, and Purple Rose of Cairo, stories about the power of film to enchant and transport. Here it is the past that mesmerizes. Allen's latest aims high, and it is often arresting. But it falls short of its goal mostly because Allen's script is not up to the task.
Midnight in Paris stars Owen Wilson as Gil, a successful Hollywood screenwriter with ambitions to be a serious novelist and nostalgia for the Paris of the 1920s, the Paris of Hemingway, Picasso, Cole Porter, Gertrude Stein, and T. S. Eliot. On vacation in the City of Light with his fiancée, Inez (Rachel McAdams), and her insufferable parents, Gil finds himself wandering the streets alone one night when an antique car stops and the riders invite him to join them. They take him to various locales where he meets his heroes from the Twenties. The rest of the film moves back and forth between his increasingly frustrating daily interaction with his fiancée's family and his midnight rendezvous with the artists of the past.
Although the snide caricature of conservatives does not dominate this film the way it did the dismal Whatever Works, it is still present. Inez's parents, John and Helen, embody ugly Americanism. John accuses the French of being unreliable allies of America, while Gil gets off a few lines about the wisdom of French resistance to the Iraq War; later, John defensively praises the Tea Party. In an incredible scene, Inez scolds Gil for always wanting to take the side of the help and whines, "That's why Daddy says you're a Communist." Meanwhile, John criticizes everything about the French — their politics and even their wine, which he compares unfavorably with California wines. If Allen had been interested in making John anything more than a straw man, he might have had him cite the famous Paris Wine Tasting of 1976, known as The Judgment of Paris, in which wines from a California winery, Stag's Leap, did indeed beat out those from some of the top French wineries — a result that still riles the French.
The gratuitous and juvenile jabs at conservatives do not mar the film all that much, however, because Inez's parents are not on screen very often and because Gil seems largely apolitical. Could Owen Wilson even begin to carry off a role as a politically engaged character?
The real attraction of the film lies elsewhere, in its re-creation of old Paris and in Gil's interaction with the greats of the 1920s. The film celebrates Paris in the way Manhattan and many other Allen films celebrate New York. Gil encounters F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald (Tom Hiddleston and Alison Pill), Ernest Hemingway (Corey Stoll), Cole Porter (Yves Heck), Pablo Picasso (Marcial Di Fonzo Bo), Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates), Salvador Dali (Adrien Brody), and Luis Buñuel (Adrien de Van). Gil is particularly attracted to the beautiful Adriana (Marion Cotillard), formerly the lover of Modigliani and Braque and now the object of the vying affections of Picasso and Hemingway.
There is much to appreciate in this part of the film, especially in the way Allen captures the vitality of the nightlife of the Twenties. Some of Gil's exchanges work moderately well, as when he suggests to the surrealist filmmaker Buñuel an idea for a film about a dinner party from which the guests find themselves unable to leave (actually the plot of one of Buñuel's most famous films). Dumbfounded, Buñuel keeps saying, "I don't understand. Why can't they just get up and walk out?" Gil's conversation with Dalí is also amusing. Dali dramatically announces that he will paint Gil's sad face, inside a rhinoceros, with a tear falling from Gil's eye, in which he will paint the image of Jesus. Other conversations fall flat — for example when Gil tells T. S. Eliot, "Where I come from, people measure out their lives in coke spoons."
That's not the only thing about the nightly forays into the past that is ineffective. Stoll's attempt to capture Hemingway's daring bravado too often calls to mind Seinfeld's J. Peterman. Then there are the problems with Owen Wilson, who plays the romantic-comedy part of this film reasonably well but is simply not credible as a writer who would be taken seriously by Hemingway and Stein. And if Wilson lacks the depth to persuade us that he is in their league, he is also not nearly as funny as one might have hoped. One is left wondering whether Allen himself might have pulled off the role.
Despite its obsession with serious writing, the film's biggest failing is Allen's script, which pales by comparison with its source material, Hemingway's splendid memoir, A Moveable Feast. Hemingway's book is full of rich, detailed, and humorous observations. Addressing the decline in his friendship with Gertrude Stein because of her quarrelsome manners, he describes her as coming increasingly to resemble a "Roman emperor, which was fine if you liked your women to look like Roman emperors." In a sympathetic portrait of Fitzgerald, he manages to cast doubt on his famous drinking habits: "It was hard to accept him as a drunkard since he was affected by such small quantities of alcohol." Little in the film comes close to those witty descriptions.
The highlight of the film is the performance of Marion Cotillard. As Adriana, Cotillard is warm, alluring, and self-deprecating; her devotion to a lost Paris exceeds that of Gil. The Paris she pines for is not the period she inhabits but the Belle Epoque, the age of the Moulin Rouge, Toulouse-Lautrec, Gauguin, and Degas. The film uses this parallel between Gil and Adriana to issue a warning about nostalgia, about the myth of a golden age. There is an alternative possibility here that the film never considers, namely, that the difficulty with recognizing the greatness of the present, particularly when it comes to cultural and artistic matters, is that we generally only recognize it after it has passed, in part by reference to the impact it has on future generations. In the period covered in the film, Hemingway and Eliot are not yet famous authors, and Fitzgerald has just published Gatsby.
And not even Cotillard can save the film from the flaws in its script, which is closer to the sort of Hollywood product one imagines Gil writing than it is to the sort of book he aspires to produce.