Friday, June 3, 2011

A Little Daylight: Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris

Woody Allen’s latest comedy, Midnight in Paris, which opened this year’s Cannes Film Festival, is a moderately entertaining and somewhat imaginative lark of a movie. If that sounds like a lukewarm recommendation, bear in mind that most of Allen’s output in the last decade and a half, including Everyone Says I Love You (1996), Deconstructing Harry (1997), Celebrity (1998), Hollywood Ending (2002), Anything Else (2003), Match Point (2005), Scoop (2006), Whatever Works (2009) and You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger (2010), has been negligible, if not contemptuous and utterly fake. (The last Allen movie that fully impressed me was 1992's fine Husbands and Wives. That one's nearly 20 years old!)  At least, this time around, Allen has fashioned a film that has a modicum of wit, a smidgen of style and, only occasionally mind you, a bit of thought. Considering how he’s been generally going through the motions in recent years, I’ll take what I can get.

The movie’s opening is even different than Allen’s usual, predictable and bland norm. Instead of an old standard playing over the credits, on a black background, Midnight in Paris begins with a montage of the City of Light’s most famous landmarks: the Eiffel Tower, Arc de Triomphe, Versailles, etc. Then, while the opening credits run, we hear the plaintive voice of actor Owen Wilson (Meet the Parents, Wedding Crashers), as screenwriter Gil Pender. Pender, accompanying his putative in-laws on a business trip to Paris, and with his fiancée Inez (Rachel McAdams) in tow, wants to leave his stifling Hollywood career, rewriting action flicks, behind and become a ‘real writer.’ And where better to do that than in Paris? But what Pender – who has penned his first novel but hasn’t shown the draft to anyone – really wants is to be an author in the Paris of the 1920s, when famous expatriates like writers Ernest Hemingway and Gertrude Stein, filmmaker Luis Buñuel and others made the city their home away from home. One night, strolling along the city streets, an old fashioned car pulls up, just at the stroke of midnight. Pender gets in and, voila, he’s exactly where he wants to be, the glamorous Paris of his dreams.

Owen Wilson and Marion Cotillard
Midnight in Paris takes an awfully long time to get to where it’s going. Initially, Allen seems to have a problem integrating the foreground of his characters with the background of the cityscape. His view of Paris doesn’t seem as artificial as his take on London was in Scoop or Match Point, but neither is it convincing. And the idea of Pender being transplanted each night to the past quickly becomes repetitive and rote as each visit merely means him bumping up against a different celebrity or two. The first night he encounters Hemingway (Corey Stoll), and F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald (Tom Hiddleston and Alison Pill). The next night, it’s Salvador Dali (Adrien Brody) and Luis Buñuel (Adrien de Van) and so on. Those early scenes are flat, though Wilson, the best thing about the movie, does his best to goose them as the incredulous Pender increasingly finds it difficult to reconcile his fantastical experiences with the harsh reality of daylight, where his unsupportive fiancée shoots down his aspirations and her parents start to wonder where he disappears to each night. Wilson is also much more convincing as an intellectual than Josh Brolin was in a similar role as a struggling writer in Allen's last film, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger.

But it’s when Pender makes the acquaintance of Adriana (Marian Cotillard), who is the mistress of painter Pablo Picasso (Marcial Di Fonzo Bo), that Allen’s screenplay and the film shifts into higher, funnier gear. The joke that she, too, isn’t enamoured of her time, and would prefer to live in a different past, the Paris of the 1890s (La Belle Époque) is a good one. So, too, is the scene where Pender gives Buñuel, who has yet to make a movie, the plotline for one of his most famous films, The Exterminating Angel (1962), about a group of bourgeoisie who cannot leave their surroundings. We know it’s the genesis of one of Bunuel’s best and most lasting films, but the concept leaves him baffled nonetheless. Too bad, Midnight in Paris isn’t more consistently smart.

As usual, in late career Allen, most of his illustrious cast is left stranded with paper thin characterizations. McAdams (Red Eye, Sherlock Holmes) in particular is given a shrill one note role to play. Inez shows not the slightest affection or softness towards Gil, which begs the question of why they’re together in the first place. (Rendering Inez’s father John (Kurt Fuller) as a Tea Party stalwart is Allen’s tone-deaf attempt to stay au courant with his country’s current politics.) And what was Allen thinking when he saddled talented British actor Michael Sheen (Frost/Nixon, The Queen) with a stereotypical, vapid role as a pretentious American intellectual, who is also Inez’s ex-boyfriend?  As for Pender’s ‘famous’ new acquaintances, Hemingway, Buñuel, et al, with the exception of  Kathy Bate’s world-weary and amusing Gertrude Stein, they’re more impersonations than incarnations. Incidentally, France’s First Lady, Carla Bruni has a small part as a museum guide but it’s a piffle.

Writer/Director Woody Allen
It’s only when Wilson, still one of the most appealing of American actors, and Cotillard (Little White Lies, Inception), who brings some tragic gravity to her role, begin a tentative relationship that Midnight in Paris starts to accrue some substance. I‘m not sure Allen, whose film and musical tastes are perpetually stuck in the ‘30s, gets the irony of asking the question of why people like Gil or Adriana wouldn’t be satisfied with their here and now, but, at least he executes the climax and point of Midnight in Paris with some panache. At its best, the film is deliciously reminiscent of "The Kugelmass Episode," Allen’s wonderfully wry short story from 1977’s Side Effects short story compilation whereas a humanities professor finds himself transported into the fictional world of Madame Bovary (only to have his presence change everything). Midnight in Paris doesn’t push its science fictional concept nearly as far as it could have, but at least it makes an attempt at doing something novel. The movie isn’t as nearly as good as Allen’s one recent success, the lively Spanish-set Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008), but it’s considerably more accomplished than Allen’s norm. I still maintain that he’s largely become an irrelevant filmmaker, but Midnight in Paris and Vicky Cristina Barcelona show that his talents aren’t entirely dormant, either. Only time will tell whether this movie heralds the start of a new, welcome phase in Allen’s filmography, or merely displays the last gasp of innovation from a director whose creative well has run dry. 

Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto. He teaches courses at Ryerson University's LIFE Institute. On Tuesday June 14, he begins a three week lecture series on Key Filmmakers of Our Time, examining the career of Canadian multiple talent Don McKellar. The series, which takes place from 10-11:30 am at the Bernard Betel Centre (1003 Steeles Avenue West) will continue with lectures on Israel’s Eytan Fox (June 21) and France’s Claire Denis (June 28).

1 comment:

  1. I look forward to checking this out. I agree that Woody's recent films have not been up to the high bar he set earlier in his career, but c'mon!

    Maybe held up to Crimes and Misdemeaners Match point falls short. But Crimes was a masterpiece! Not really fair. "Negligible, if not contemptuous"!!?. He makes good films most of the time.