There’s an irony in the fact that, while Woody Allen’s latest movie explicitly rejects nostalgia, it’s also his comfiest throwback in years. Midnight in Paris feels exactly like the kind of modest picture Allen might have made back in the 1980s — a gently played, loosely extended lark that culminates in a prescription for life well lived.
Allen leans heavily on the charm of star Owen Wilson to propel a featherweight yarn about Gil, a screenwriter and frustrated novelist visiting Paris who is swept back, somehow, on the tide of history. A sleepy walk down a moonlit street is followed by a ride in a swanky vintage limo and suddenly Gil is partying with F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, hobnobbing with Ernest Hemingway, and passing manuscript pages to Gertrude Stein. You get the picture — especially if you’ve seen Allen’s earlier The Purple Rose of Cairo, a fantasy that Midnight in Paris cheerfully apes and upends.
At one point, Gil tries to bring along his fiancée Inez (Rachel McAdams) on one of his journeys into the past, but she’s too impatient. And, anyway, she doesn’t share his fondness for the golden age of Parisian literati. But when Gil meets the 1920s beauty Adriana (Marion Cotillard), something clicks. She’s Pablo Picasso’s mistress, sure, but this rakish overgrown surfer dude stirs something inside her. And, just like that, Gil has a surpassingly important decision to make.
I don’t think it’s spoiling anything to say he makes the right choice, although I won’t go so far as to suggest what that decision is. Allen ties the yarn up neatly and sweetly and even provides a few potential belly-laughs along the way. It’s tempting to tout this as some kind of comeback for the director, and some critics do. David Edelstein and Stephanie Zacharek, two film writers I like a lot, both call it his best film in more than a decade, which strikes me as a snub of Match Point and Vicky Cristina Barcelona, both of which worked up more snap and crackle than Midnight manages.
It’s charming and funny, and I especially enjoyed seeing Allen and expert DP Darius Khondji make a photo project out of the Parisian cityscapes, but Woody’s coasting downhill. The present-day scenes are populated with stock figures from his oeuvre (the pedantic academic who impresses the superficial girlfriend who undervalues the everyman pluck and soulfulness of the gentle protagonist), and their golden-age counterparts hardly fare better. He gets points for name-dropping but, when it comes to depth of characterization, Allen’s take on Hemingway and company falls somewhere on the spectrum between a Saturday Night Live sketch and a Shouts & Murmurs column.
Only Gil himself and dear Adriana get a fair shake. It must be said that Cotillard is pretty wonderful as a sad-eyed good-time girl, and it’s her presence, in opposition to Wilson’s easy but naive soulfulness, that imbues the film with a few sweet frissons of bittersweet feeling. Is it a fun movie? Yes. Will longtime Woody Allen devotées get a very pleasurable kick out of it? Oh, you betcha. It’s like a gift to Woody fanboys. But I’d like to think Allen is still capable of challenging himself, and that means calling this softball pitch a return to form is a stretch.