Judge Clark Douglas often fantasizes about living in Alabama circa 2003.
A story about a young man's love for a city, Paris, and the illusion people have that a life different from theirs would be much better.
"That's what the present is. It's a little unsatisfying because life is unsatisfying."
Facts of the Case
Gil Pender (Owen Wilson, The Darjeeling Limited) is a writer who's decided to take a break from churning out screenplays for Hollywood and do some real writing for a change. He's just begun a vacation in Paris with his fiancée Inez (Rachel McAdams, Morning Glory), where he's expected to spend most of his time with Inez's conservative parents (Kurt Fuller, Wayne's World and Mimi Kennedy, Due Date) and insufferable friends (Michael Sheen, The Damned United and Nina Arianda, Win Win). Gil would rather spend his time wandering the magical streets of Paris and putting the finishing touches on his novel, so he finds every possible excuse to break away. One night, something unusual happens: Gil finds himself magically transported back to the 1920s. While there, he encounters such famous figures as F. Scott Fitzgerald (Tom Hiddleston, Thor), Ernest Hemingway (Corey Stoll, Salt), Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates, About Schmidt), Pablo Picasso (Marcial Di Fonzo Bo, The Man I Love), Salvador Dali (Adrien Brody, The Village), T.S. Eliot (David Lowe, The Man in the Iron Mask), and many others. However, the person who makes the biggest impression on him is a beautiful girl named Adriana (Marion Cotillard, Inception). Is it possible that the love of Gil's life lives in the distant past?
Like many of Woody Allen's films, Midnight in Paris is a modern fable filled with wit. The quantity of the wit varies from film to film (though it's rarely less than stellar), and the life lessons/punchlines of the fables vary dramatically in their resonance (though they're rarely less than mostly true). With Allen, there's always endless disagreement on which films are his best and worst; many of the same films end up on both lists, depending on who you talk to. He constantly seems to be walking that line between knowingly playful insight and glibness, making it very easy for viewers to disagree on whether he's delivered something smart or shallow. He walks that line once again with this film, but delivers so many charming moments along the way that I suspect the majority of viewers will be won over regardless.
While the moral of Midnight in Paris (essentially, "Hey, the past always looks better than the present because you're not living there") is very simple (though not as simple as the slightly weary clichés of You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger), the execution of the idea is so much fun. This is an exhilarating fantasy for the Barnes and Noble crowd, a playfully literate picture that flings us into a world which feels very much like one of those upscale restaurant murals featuring a bunch of esteemed artists from various fields milling around together in an attractive setting. There's the distinct possibility that we're seeing Paris as Gil has imagined it rather than Paris as it really was, but Gil is knowledgeable enough that the differences aren't that enormous. His version is just a little more…well, magical.
Allen humorously accentuates the wonder of the fantasy world Gil inhabits by accentuating the more tiresome aspects of life in the present. Michael Sheen is slyly hilarious as Inez's pompous friend, spewing loads of pseudo-intellectual babble about everything he sees. Just listen to the way he pronounces "Versailles"; he's pronouncing it correctly, but in a way designed to alert everyone else he's pronouncing it correctly (there's another nice touch later when Sheen's wife pronounces it the exact same way). Wilson's weary politeness and gently loopy charm is just right for Gil; the actor has enough of a distinctive screen presence that he's able to effectively mask the fact that Gil is yet another Allen surrogate.
The early scenes in Paris of old (where the film spends the bulk of its time) play like a game of "spot the historical figure," but it soon develops into something richer. If the assorted celebrities sometimes seem as if they've been reduced to their most well-known traits, that's only because each character is precisely as developed as Gil needs them to be. They all eagerly invite him into their private conversations, ask him for his opinion on matters he knows nothing about and happily dispense advice when he asks for it. Most of the actors seem to be having a blast, but Corey Stoll stands out as Ernest Hemingway. He is as Hemingway was: masculine, frank, lusty and matter-of-fact (traits which no one would use to describe Allen/Gil). Kathy Bates does solid work as Gertude Stein, Adrien Brody has a lot of fun in a small role as a rhinoceros-obsessed Salvador Dali and Marion Cotillard once again brings interesting shades of humanity to a woman who's more of a symbol than a character.
The film concludes on yet another one of those graceful Allen twists that you see coming a mile away yet which still catch you off guard with their elegance. During that scene, I knew precisely what would happen, and yet I found myself immensely moved when it happened. Midnight in Paris once again reveals one of my favorite versions of the director: the begrudging optimist. It's very much a film made by the same man who gave us Hannah and Her Sisters, in which a man plagued by an overwhelming existential crisis eventually finds joy and redemption in the simple beauty of The Marx Brothers' Duck Soup. Allen claims that Hannah and Her Sisters was only optimistic, "in the parts where I failed as a director," but that's part of what makes the sunnier moments in his movies all the more touching. In Allen's cinematic world, happy endings can be as overwhelmingly inescapable as tragic ones.
Midnight in Paris (Blu-ray) offers a lovely 1.85:1/1080p transfer. This is Allen's best-looking film since Vicky Christina Barcelona (a film similarly in love with its assorted locations), and he opens things up with a three-minute prologue in which we're given a lovely visual tour of the place with no accompaniment save for some vintage music courtesy of Sidney Bechet. The detail is exceptional throughout the film, despite the fact that a few moments look a little soft. The palette is very warm, with golden/orange/sepia-toned filters which enhance the nostalgic feel of certain passages. Blacks are satisfyingly deep and shadow delineation is impressive. The DTS-HD 3.0 Master Audio track is perfectly sufficient, as Allen's films are always quite simple in this department. The film relies on dialogue, carefully chosen musical selections and a modest amount of simple sound design, and it's all delivered with clarity and warmth. There are just a couple of moments in which the dialogue sounds just the tiniest bit distorted (particularly during the first scene at Gertrude Stein's house). Extras, as usual, are very minimal: a disposable "Midnight in Cannes" featurette (5 minutes), some photo galleries, a trailer and BD-Live. I know Allen isn't a fan of bonus features, but one day I'd love to see Criterion release some of his films with video essays, documentaries, interviews and so on.
Midnight in Paris is a delightful film, one that reminds us once again that Allen is still capable of delivering exceptional work even at this late stage of his career. It's not hard to see why the film became the biggest box office hit of his career; it's an effortlessly likable affair and ranks as the strongest work he's done in several years.
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