In Love with Midnight in Paris: a Recommendation from Steve

“If you doubt that Paris was made for love, give Paris one more chance.” Whenever I think of Paris, I hear Jonathan Richman singing those words. Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris is a love letter to that city. It also provided me with the opportunity to give Woody one more chance. Twenty-five years ago I fell in love with Allen’s Hannah and Her Sisters. It is still one of my favorite movies. Since then I have seen many of Allen’s movies, liking most of them, but not really falling in love with any of them. I’m in love again. Although Midnight in Paris is not the masterpiece that Hannah and Her Sisters is, I did find it to be delightful.

I highly recommend this movie even though I think it utterly fails to achieve its intended purpose. Allen seems to want to say that there is no golden age, that nostalgia isn’t what it used to be. However, he makes Paris in both the 1920’s and 1890’s so alluring that it is hard to understand why Gil (played by Owen Wilson) would choose 2010 over either of them. If you are unfamiliar with the plot, Gil is a writer in 2010. He has achieved some fame as a scriptwriter in Hollywood, but he considers that to be hack work and desires to do some “real writing” so he is working on a novel. He is in Paris with his fiancée and her parents. He falls in love with Paris and says that the greatest joy would be to experience Paris during its golden age in the 1920’s. One night, out walking alone, a car pulls up as the clock strikes midnight and he is invited to join its occupants who are on their way to a party. He goes along and eventually realizes that he is, indeed, in the 20’s. Cole Porter is at the piano and Gil meets F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, among others. Those encounters are what I loved about the movie. Especially wonderful were Ernest Hemingway (Corey Stoll) and the Surrealists, led by Salvador Dali (Adrien Brody in a marvelous performance). Unfortunately, Dali is limited to one scene, but one of the other Surrealists, Bunuel, a film-maker, is in another scene that had me barking with laughter. The characters from the past are magical. The only one that didn’t really work for me was Kathy Bates as Gertrude Stein. She may very well have caught the persona of Stein perfectly, but it felt too much like a role I’ve seen Bates do many times before. I did enjoy her performance, but I couldn’t get beyond seeing her as Kathy Bates. Overall, though, Allen’s script has great fun playing with the notions of time travel.

The real weakness of the movie is the characters in 2010. Gil’s fiancée, Inez (Rachel McAdams), and her parents are so unlikable. They are one-dimensional snobs. The movie is billed as a romantic comedy, but its true power is as a life comedy. There is little romance between Gil and Inez. How they ended up engaged is a mystery. Gil does fall for two other women, but the movie does not find its heart in those relationships, either. (However, it should be noted that Marion Cotillard is wonderful as Adrian, Pablo Picasso’s mistress, who draws  the attention of both Gil and Hemingway.) Equally unlikable is Paul (Michael Sheen), an old friend that Inez runs into. He is a college professor who is quite full of himself and Inez clearly still has a thing for him. His part is also one-dimensional, but I thought it still worked. I loved his repetition of “If I’m not mistaken” and “I believe” as he went on and on about Paris and art. He clearly believed that he was never mistaken. The character worked as a foil for Gil, especially in a delightful scene in an art museum after Gil has learned a few things. It is the development of Gil’s character (which many have noted bares a striking resemblance to Woody himself and which is played flawlessly by Wilson) that makes the movie, although, as I have said, it’s mystifying that he ends up choosing the present over the past. Through his interactions in the 20’s he finds himself.

The movie lends itself to spiritual pondering. If you could pick any time and place in history to visit as your imagined golden age, when and where would you go? Who would you want to meet? What is it about that time and place and those people that would be life-giving to you? How can you discover those same qualities in the world around you so that you can put the gifts/talents you have been given to their best use?

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