Midnight in Paris, the latest chapter in Woody Allen’s ongoing Euro-travelogue, commences with an old-fashioned overture—a lengthy montage of postcard-pretty Parisian street scenes set to a Sidney Bechet clarinet number—hearkening back to the opening scenes of Manhattan (1977), the Woodman’s swoony, romantic ode to NYC. Steeping himself in European locations for the last half decade hasn’t so much compelled Woody to forge new material, as it has encouraged him to approach longstanding preoccupations from a foreign perspective.
Cultural cross-pollination isn’t just Woody’s latest modus operandi; it’s also one of Midnight’s overarching themes. Situating a familiar constellation of Woody Allen stock characters—the indecisive, lovelorn and –torn protagonist (Owen Wilson, whose troubled personal history adds an affecting layer of vulnerability to his performance) who suffers the slings and arrows of indignity at the hands of his shrewish fiancée (Rachel McAdams) and slave-to-status, presumptive in-laws (Kurt Fuller, Mimi Kennedy)—against unfamiliar surroundings generates the majority of the film’s fish-out-of-water gags, whether they’re social-political (Gil’s persistent potshots at his future in-laws’ Tea Party leanings) or cultural (Michael Sheen’s bearded blowhard correcting a tour guide on the fine points of Rodin’s love life). At this point in his six-decade career, Woody can write that sort of material in his sleep, and while it doesn’t negate the few hearty chuckles these jokes elicit, the thematic heart and soul of the film rests with what he designates “golden age thinking,” the unshakeable sensation haunting aspiring novelist (and erstwhile Hollywood screenwriting hack) Gil Pender that life would have been more satisfying if only he had lived in some ideal, bygone era.
In Midnight’s central conceit, Gil wanders the streets in a drunken stupor until, at the stroke of (you guessed it!) midnight, a vintage Rolls crowded with revelers pulls up at the cobblestone curb to whisk Gil back to the 1920s, the fabled era of the expatriate Lost Generation, where he soon finds himself keeping company with the likes of Hemingway, Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald and Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates). These stand-ins not only permit Woody to drop some tidbits of cultural and historical knowledge, they also serve as sounding-boards for Gil, allowing him to bounce his meager stock of ideas off his literary idols. It’s a good thing, as it turns out, that their rather surprising goodwill and encouragement do not simply lead to a warm ego-bath for Gil (and, by extension, Allen the auteur). What could so easily have come across as portentous and heavy-handed just about breezes past under Woody’s (for once, of late) deft touch.
Parenthetically, my favorite bit of historical revisionism must be the scenes where Gil meets up with the Surrealist cohort of Salvador Dali, Man Ray and the inimitable Luis Buñuel. Gil at one point inadvertently suggests the scenario for Exterminating Angel (1962) to a bewildered Buñuel. Probably it’s no coincidence that one of Buñuel’s early films was the Surrealist masterwork L’Age d’Or (aka The Golden Age ).
The light-hearted, nigh-on whimsical, atmosphere is, however, a bit deceptive: Ultimately, in a neatly recursive step even further back into the past, in the service of his paramour Adriana’s (Marion Cotillard) own hyperinflation of the late 19th century Belle Époque, where they encounter Toulouse-Lautrec and Gauguin, Gil realizes that existence invites dissatisfaction, whenever and whatever you happen to be. Midnight’s conclusion is therefore inversely proportional to Vicky Cristina Barcelona’s (2008), wherein its protagonists reject the possibilities that Spain opens up for them, only to return to the status quo of their former lives. Gil, on the other hand, ends by endorsing Rainer Maria Rilke’s apothegm: “You must change your life.”
Never mind that this sea-change occurs altogether too quickly and easily for Gil, in the winsome form of a simpatico vendor (Léa Seydoux) who shares Gil’s cornball quirks (playing the flâneur in the soaking rain, a Cole Porter fixation). That the film even attempts an affirmative, baseline existential conclusion, rather than embracing stasis and status quo ante, is to be commended. The Woodman still has a few excellent ones in him. And that alone is reason enough to rejoice…