Midnight in Paris
I’ll have what he’s having
I have been meaning to write a few words about my favorite summer movie of 2011, but when you love a film it’s sometimes hard to get the right kind of distance or perspective to clarify your thoughts. It’s been a good few weeks since I saw it now so I’m going to give it a go.
Woody Allen typically takes a simple story idea, often little more than a gag, and extends it to feature length through the injection of neurosis. The relative strength of his movies has a lot to do with whether these story gags are sufficient that we will accept that stretching process (Manhattan Murder Mystery) or feel he is pushing his luck (Match Point).
The gag in Midnight in Paris comes from the idea that everyone has his or her own concept of a ‘Golden Age’ in which they wish they could have lived. There is a mystical past moment for each of us that exemplifies everything we find admirable or simply appealing about a culture. When Owen Wilson’s Gil miraculously finds a way to experience life among his literary and cultural heroes in 1920s Paris, he falls in love with a woman he meets there. Of course the payoff is that she has her own notion of a Golden Age and it isn’t the same as his. You can’t live in the past, Woody is telling us, but he lets us down gently.
Allen uses a simple romantic thread alternately to pull and push Gil into the actual pleasure center of the film, the joyously funny and endearing encounters with his own modernist literary lions. Gil’s budding romance with Adriana in the magical 1920s and his increasing desire to escape from the inadequacy of his relationship with his fiancé Inez in the present keeps him coming back to Paris past. It also maintains enough of a sense of emotional continuity that the film can play the encounters with the likes of Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald (the wonderful Alison Pill), Hemingway and Gertrude Stein at the level of the sketch and the extended cameo. Too much of an attempt at character depth here and we would see through his charade and call shenanigans on his light as a feather fantasy world. As it is Allen pitches everything just about right, although his incarnation of Bunuel could have used a lot more of the filmmaker’s dry wit.
Integral to this tonal balancing act is Owen Wilson’s terrific performance as Hollywood screenwriter Gil, a man living in a world of glossy surfaces who is searching for depth as a writer. Gil combines a boyish delight at his unlikely encounters with a real yearning for emotional and creative fulfillment. As Allen’s foil, Wilson walks the tightrope between the increasing clownishness almost forced upon him by events in the film’s present and the fervent, authentic cultural and romantic adventurer he can become in the past with great skill. He makes us share in the joy of a fantasy fulfilled and we approve as he finds inner strength from that experience to cast off the shackles of his inadequate life and make a second start in the reality of the present.
For all its literary investment, Midnight in Paris is light as air. In a way that is its greatest achievement. We get an invitation to a time and a place that we are taught to think of as one of the greatest cultural alembics of history and we get to have such fun with it. Of course you need some knowledge of these characters to appreciate all the humor, but the film wears its heroes comfortably enough that some knowledge will suffice. Midnight in Paris has been criticized for a lack of depth in its treatment of the modernist demi-monde, but for me that is being churlish while missing the point. Besides, the charm and beauty of the storytelling – Darius Khondji’s cinematography is exquisite – will more than carry you through.