Woody Loves Paris

He loves nostalgia, too, so it’s good that his latest rom com samples the Roaring Twenties.

Here’s what Owen Wilson thinks of French art.
Here’s what Owen Wilson thinks of French art.

Midnight in Paris is amusing. Which is fine. While it by no means represents the long-awaited return to form, it is probably as good as Woody Allen’s films are likely to get in this, the final victory-lap stage of his career. With its pleasant gypsy jazz guitar score and clearly enunciated themes of nostalgia set in the city of lights, Midnight in Paris dips, glides, and even manages to soar (if only for a moment here and there). Owen Wilson, who hangs onto his identity better than many have in the role of Woody Allen’s trademark alter-ego protagonist, plays Gil, a worn-out screenwriter with his first novel freshly under his belt. Gil travels to Paris with his fiancée, Inez (Rachel McAdams), and her disapproving parents, whom Allen’s script characterizes as “crypto-fascist airhead zombies.” In her role as a harpy shrew, Rachel McAdams fills space in a strictly utilitarian part that could have been executed by a dozen other actresses; no one would be any the wiser.

The story takes shape as an imaginative literary reverie. Gil adores walking in the rain in Paris — especially when the church bells toll at midnight and somehow, magically, he’s transported on time-travel journeys to the Paris of the 1920s. Allen’s eye for immaculate postcard compositions regales the audience with a fantasy vision of Paris. American ex-pats such as Cole Porter, Ernest Hemingway, Pablo Picasso, and Gertrude Stein prove that the Twenties were Roaring by exchanging ideas and bodily fluids. A stream of actors alternately succeeds and fails in cameo roles as famous artists, writers, dancers and lovers.

Marion Cotillard stands out as Adriana, a composite of Picasso’s many mistresses. Here is an actress incapable of turning in a lackluster performance. Corey Stoll owns his vibrant scenes as Hemingway. Kathy Bates misses the target completely as Gertrude Stein, just as Adrien Brody turns his Salvador Dali creation into a cartoon character of the Bugs Bunny variety.

Allen conjures up a simpler time filled with a joie de vivre sadly absent from our 21st-century existence. In fairness to the Woodman, the famously wistful auteur backpedals to remind us that nostalgia is a trap that prevents us from enjoying the life we have to share. Midnight in Paris embodies a springtime sense of romantic desire. Its enchantment will continue if, after the lights go up, you happen to walk out of the cinema and onto a rainy urban street.