Woody Allen has directed so many movies – about one a year, since the 1970s – that they tend to blend together. This is especially so since he often retreads the same material, albeit with enough twists to cover his tracks.
His latest film – or should I say, this year's Woody Allen entry – is a sweet, not altogether satisfying variation on the fantasy-becomes-reality conceit he used in his Depression-era "The Purple Rose of Cairo."
In "Midnight in Paris," Owen Wilson plays Gil, a successful, self-described Hollywood hack vacationing with his flinty fiancée, Inez (Rachel McAdams). Trying to complete his first novel – a serious work he hopes will validate his self-worth if not overfill his bank account – he falls in love with Paris and its romantic connection to his Lost Generation idols Hemingway and Fitzgerald.
Then, mysteriously, he finds himself, each midnight, transported back to that time, where he communes and carouses not only with those writers but with the likes of Picasso, Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates), Monet, Dalí (Adrien Brody), Luis Buñuel, Cole Porter, T.S. Eliot – you get the picture.
After a while, the passing parade of geniuses becomes in itself a source of amusement.
Allen floats the idea that every generation considers its own era to be something less than a golden age. Paul (Michael Sheen), an insufferably pedantic friend of Inez who is in Paris with his wife (Nina Arianda) to lecture at the Sorbonne, declares that "nostalgia is denial." Gil, whose novel is set in a nostalgia shop, believes just the opposite. By actually meeting up with these great artists, he is validating his true self. He even gets Stein to read his manuscript (and, lo and behold, she likes it).
The set pieces where Gil hangs out with legends are often pointedly funny, and sometimes touching. Allen sets Gil up with Adriana (the exquisite Marion Cotillard), a mistress of Picasso and Braque, who wishes she lived in La Belle Époque.
Corey Stoll's Hemingway, with his overdeveloped machismo, speaks just like a Hemingway character – or, more accurately, a parody of a Hemingway character. (Allen should enter himself in the annual Bad Hemingway competition. He'd probably win.)
Brody's Dalí, who repeatedly announces his own name with a royal flourish, is a marvelous caricature of a poseur-genius. A particularly tart touch: He and his fellow Surrealists are completely cool with Gil's admission that he's dropped in from the future.
But Allen doesn't go very deep into his time-travel conceit. I kept waiting for Gil, or somebody, to point out that Fitzgerald and Hemingway ended out their lives in radically bleaker straits.
Gil, who is essentially standing in for Allen, remains forever starry-eyed. Reality never really intrudes on his romanticism, which comes to seem more gaga than grandiose – though I don't think Allen sees it that way.
Allen has been criticized for his sanitized, Gershwinized view of Manhattan, and he does a similar thing here with the City of Lights.
Charming as it often is, "Midnight in Paris" is essentially a piece of transcendent tourism from an artist who, despite his comic acuity, still believes in Tinker Bell. Grade: B (Rated PG-13 for some sexual references and smoking.)