In a nutshell: Whiny American self-obsesses across 100 years. But it sure looks pretty.
Popcorn rating: 3.5/5
If you were to do a straw poll asking what actor today could embody the whiny, self obsessed, intellectual nerd as portrayed by Woody Allen in, well, Woody Allen’s movies, fair to say Owen Wilson wouldn’t top the list. But, hey, you know what? As Midnight in Paris proves, he’s actually pretty good in a quintessentially Allan-esque role. In fact, it’s quite pleasant to see the genial Texan play more than his usual laid back, lovable “dude”.
Wilson plays Gil, a successful screen writer who yearns for the artistic lifestyle of 1920s Paris. Ensconsed in a garret, or a plush house in the countryside, Gil just knows France would help him achieve his dream of writing that elusive first novel, the one he needs to prove to himself and everyone else he really is a writer, not just a Hollywood hack.
On holiday in the city of love with his spoilt fiancee Inez (Rachel McAdams) and her snobbish parents (Mimi Kennedy and Kurt Fuller), a wine-soaked Gil takes a meandering walk one night and, lost at midnight, finds himself drawn into another, parallel dream world. Namely, he finds himself in the 1920s where literary legends such as Ernest Hemingway (Corey Stoll), F Scott Fitzgerald (Tom Hiddleston), Salvador Dali (Adrien Brody) and Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates) are waiting to welcome him into their heady, bohemian lifestyle.
As the focal point of the movie, Owen has a lot riding on his shoulders but he pulls it off with apparent ease, giving Gil an intensity, a self obsession that seems natural, intriguing and, surprisingly, quite engaging. McAdams and her folk, including cheesy friend Paul and his obsequious wife Carol (Michael Sheen and Nina Arianda), are presented as the boorish villains, all too ready to blame a poor chambermaid when earrings go missing. Modern day horrors though they are, some of the best scenes are when this group are on screen, bickering yes but stealing all the laughs, raising wry smiles of recognition.
Of course, Midnight in Paris is more than just a study of people. Away from his beloved New York, director Allen offers us a picture postcard of a movie. From snapshots of modern day Paris to the glamour of the 20s and the smoky, gaslit Belle Epoque, each scene is as sumptuous as the next. While it is (thankfully) not quite the sacharrine capital city of Amelie, it is certainly a Paris you wish you could drop into uninvited, pop round for a glass of Absinthe and some scintillating conversation.
So a winner all round surely? And yet, not quite. All the right ingredients are there but somehow Gil’s 1920s lack true vibrancy. The setting are perfect, the colours deep and rich, each actor the idealized picture of their famous counterpart, embodying their mannerisms, their habits. And as fake as Inez’s love. They are mere ciphers, in place only to prop up Gil’s literary ambitions, when you long to see these literary celebrities in their full, squabbling, drinking, debaucherous glory. Gil too, for someone entranced by the stories of the roaring 20s, seems happy with only a glimpse, a few measly sentences, a periphery presence in a tweed jacket. It is a shame because amongst this cast there is such talent, such opportunity, if only they were given the chance to shine for more than a few minutes.
It is no secret that Allen is best at the subtleties of humanity, the humour to be found in family bickering, snobbish judgements, lack of understanding. Here too, that is where the real laughs lie, golden moments such as Gil berating Inez’s father in a politely belligerent political rant. Contrarily, when Midnight in Paris strives too hard to be funny – the daft detective sideline – it is at its most irksome.
Then again, Midnight in Paris isn’t trying to be more than its parts, it isn’t trying to get us drunk on olde worlde splendour, nor make us laugh until our sides ache. It is trying to capture that essence, that joie de vivre which French comedies such as Priceless do so well, something fragile and soft, something which Hollywood romances so often fail to deliver.
Midnight in Paris is, simply, a beautiful movie, a whispery, summer romance that will be quickly forgotten but no less loved.