Directed By: Woody Allen
Written By: Woody Allen
Produced By: Letty Aronson, Stephen Tenenbaum, Jaume Roures
Starring: Owen Wilson, Rachel McAdams, Marion Cotillard, Kathy Bates, Corey Stoll, Michael Sheen
Edited By: Alisa Lepselter
Music By: Stephane Wrembel
Distributed By: Sony Pictures Classics
Budget: $17 million
Runtime: 94 minutes
Had I seen this film in 2011 it, without question, would have made my Top 5 Films of 2011, probably giving Super 8 a run. Midnight in Paris is the first Woody Allen film I have seen and I must say I was very impressed. It’s a short but fun adventure through decades of literary and artistic figures, and each representation on screen is so accurate it’s beautiful. Add to this a fittingly simple love story and Midnight in Paris is a superb example of simple yet effective tentpole cinema. It’s 90 minutes long and doesn’t have groundbreaking visuals or score or cinematography, and yet everything about it is flawless and impressive.
There is no particular reason I haven’t seen more Allen films. They’ve just never happened across the top of my Netflix queue. I hear plenty, though, and know his films are hit or miss. I suppose it’s the price you pay for releasing around one film every year. Regardless of how we feel about Allen’s overall career, though, Midnight in Paris is almost unquestionably a hit. It tells a story (not the) of Gil Pender, a struggling writer on vacation with his fiancee and her parents in Paris. On the surface it would seem his life is great: successful Hollywood screenwriter (of worthless popcorn flicks) with an attractive fiancee and stable life. Yet, Gil Pender is not happy. He desires to write a novel and his fiancee is anything but supportive.
He starts taking midnight strolls through Paris and magically finds himself transported back in time to 1920s Paris, a period he is deeply in love with. He meets the likes of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Zelda Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, TS Eliot, Cole Porter and Josephine Baker. Hemingway introduces Pender to Gertrude Stein who agrees to read a draft of his novel and give critique, which is comparable to Hitchcock agreeing to preview my film. In other words, it’s awesome. Particularly when Pender, and the audience, isn’t sure whether this is some strange dream or if he actually time traveled. I’ll let you decide.
He goes back out the next night and once again time travels. He spends the next few nights taking midnight strolls back in time and meeting the likes of Pable Picasso, Leo Stein, Salvador Dali, Man Ray, and Luis Buñuel. As a result, his fiancee thinks he’s cheating on her. Ironic considering she is cheating on him. I don’t want to spoil too much, but you can add the likes of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Paul Gauguin and Edgar Degas to the characters he meets from Paris’ Belle Époque (1890s). The film is filled to the brim with literary and artistic references, most of which I did not know but different viewers will have different backgrounds.
Already, perhaps, you can see the appeal of the premise: a struggling writer goes back in time and visits tons of literary/artistic inspirations. What makes Midnight in Paris so superb, however, is how amazing the representations of these people are. The art direction and costume design is pitch-perfect for a plot that takes us from 2010 Paris to 1920s and 1890s Paris, showcasing a city both very similar and yet very different. Woody Allen is a director who knows his craft and is creative and original, so usually the problem lies with an uninteresting story, something this film is the complete opposite of.
This brings me to what makes this film so awesome: the cast. The film is all about the cast with your typical third act character revelation to teach us something about remembering to live in the moment (something Pender, obviously, is literally not doing). Wilson, McAdams (his fiancee), her parents and Michael Sheen (a male friend of McAdams) all perform wonderfully. This film is not a drama. It’s a comedy, but in a very Woody Allen way. It’s odd, considering how inexperienced I am with his films, yet it took about ten minutes to recognize his style of filmmaking and writing. Jokes are subtle lines of wit, the personalities of these characters strange yet real. Nothing about this film is fantastical except for the time travel aspect, and even that is blurringly realistic. Allen said he cast Wilson because he doesn’t come across on screen like he’s acting but rather a human being speaking in a certain situation, and I can agree with this. It’s subtle acting that fits Allen’s style.
It’s the “famous people” who really stand out. Tom Hiddleston (Loki in Thor) and Alison Pill (Scott Pilgrim vs the World) start us off as the Fitzgeralds, and it’s just…amazing. These are people who modern audiences only experience through their works of art, in this case novels. The 1920s were a strange decade, especially for the well connected, and it takes about thirty seconds for the Fitzgeralds of this film to appear perfectly accurate with how I, at least, imagine them to be. It’s not a “wow this performance is so perfect it’s Daniel Day-Lewis Oscar-worthy,” but rather subtly simple enough to make you smile.
I’d like to focus on Corey Stoll as Hemingway and Adrien Brody as Dali. Hemingway is a very, very exact author. Read one novel and you know his style (for better or worse), and just a small amount of research will reveal how closely his style follows with his lifestyle. Stoll does an amazing job bringing these things to life. There’s an important distinction here. Allen isn’t creating biopic renditions. He’s creating literary representations of them. Pender never met them, but he’s read their work, and it is their works, not their lives, he interacts with. Stoll’s Hemingway is a perfect parallel of Hemingway’s writing: droll, depressing, pessimistic…read a novel and you’ll know. Stoll gives one monologue in particular that sounds so perfect you can’t help but smile with joy.
Brody as Dali is equally hilarious. Dali was…weird. Really weird. His paintings (not to mention his two films) prove his oddness. He’s only in the film for about three minutes and yet it’s three solid minutes of awesome. Dali is joined by fellow surrealists Man Ray and Buñuel, and when Pender admits he’s from the future they believe him and accept it. They are, after all, surrealists! I’d rather you see the cameo for yourself then give away his great lines, but Dali and Hemingway are definitely the stand out performances.
Notice I haven’t mentioned a climatic fall from which the protagonist must rise again, and that’s because there really isn’t one. It’s what makes Midnight in Paris so wonderful. Gil Pender starts off in a down place and the film is about him rising higher and higher. Every scene is funny, even when the characters may be incredibly irritating (they always get what they deserve). This isn’t an Oscar-winning film, except for Best Original Screenplay, but it’s well deserving of the nomination and recognition. I love epic cinema, but sometimes it’s also a fun experience to watch something short and sweet. That’s what Midnight in Paris is: a simple story made by a cast and crew that love their art and put complete dedication into their work. You won’t be taken on a roller coaster of an emotional journey, but you will not regret spending the hour and a half it takes to see this film. I’ll finish with a Roger Ebert quote, from his review:
“This is Woody Allen’s 41st film. He writes his films himself, and directs them with wit and grace. I consider him a treasure of the cinema. Some people take him for granted, although Midnight in Paris reportedly charmed even the jaded veterans of the Cannes press screenings. There is nothing to dislike about it. Either you connect with it or not. I’m wearying of movies that are for “everybody” – which means, nobody in particular. Midnight in Paris is for me, in particular, and that’s just fine with moi.”