Midnight in Paris opens, as one would expect from a filmmaker as nostalgic as Woody Allen, with a music montage starring the great city itself. And yet what we see is not quite the same city immortalized in art, song, and story from decades past. While landmarks such as Le Champs Elysees or The Eiffel Tower feature prominently, Allen carefully includes in each shot some peripheral reminders of how times have changed the City of Love; a scaffolding here, a chain-link fence there, tourists reading maps, the lights of congested traffic overpowering the old-fashioned streetlamps – all juxtaposed against a 1920s jazz standard on the soundtrack, recalling his 1979 masterpiece Manhattan.
Gil (Owen Wilson), a two-bit Hollywood writer on vacation with is catty fiance Inez (Rachel McAdams), is naturally enamoured by the city's rich ambiance, thinking there could be no better place to settle down and work on his pet novel than Paris in the 1920s. His wife, and her friends Paul and Carol, have a cold glass of reality to douse Gil's daydream. “Nostalgia is denial – denial of the painful present.” It is with these words spoken to Gil by Paul (Michael Sheen channeling Alan Alda's pompous ass role from Allen's Crimes and Misdemeanors) that the central theme of Midnight in Paris is given voice. Paul diagnoses Gil as a “golden age thinker” who inherently believes a bygone era to be superior to his own. Not pleased by such talk, Gil spurns the company of his wife and her friends by taking to long late night walks through the city, whereupon he slips into his own time-traveling pseudo-fantasy.
For him, Paris truly comes to life at night – midnight to be precise. It takes him back to the “Golden Age” of his idealized perception of the city. He meets and greets with his most adored influences and idols; Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Cole Porter, Gertrude Stein, Pablo Picasso, just to name a few... but the most fascinating person he meets, the alluring Adriana (Marion Cotillard), is what spurs him onto a perplexing psychological love affair, and draws him closer to an epiphany about the root of nostalgia and our human dissatisfaction. It is Allen's freshest, most imaginative premise since The Purple Rose of Cairo.
Owen Wilson can more or less be considered an extension of the onscreen persona Allen spent years performing himself; the precocious, stammering sentimentalist prone to self-analyzing his own neuroses. That said, Wilson plays it very well, making a lovable and quite funny protagonist. The supporting cast that animates his possibly hallucinated alternate Paris is wonderful as well, be it in the form of Corey Stoll's virile Hemingway, Allison Pill's zany Zelda, or Adrien Brody's hysterical cameo as Salvador Dali. The midnight sequences are beautifully shot with warm, textured lighting by Darius Khondji and Johanne Debas, before jolting us back into Gil's painful present with the hard, bright light of day.
***1/2 out of ****