Friday, June 17, 2011

Midnight in Paris: Enchanted dream

Midnight in Paris (2011) • View trailer for Midnight in Paris
4.5 stars. Rating: PG-13, and needlessly, for mild sexual content
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 6.17.11

Back in 1979, Woody Allen opened his film Manhattan with the following rhapsodic voice-over:

He adored New York City. He romanticized it all out of proportion. To him, New York meant beautiful women and street-smart guys who seemed to know all the angles. No matter what the season was, this was still a town that existed in black-and-white, and pulsated to the great tunes of George Gershwin.
The displaced Gil (Owen Wilson), already enchanted by his unexpected
surroundings, is further mesmerized by the coquettish Adriana (Marion
Cotillard), who guides him through a side of Paris that offers fresh surprises
from one moment to the next.

A bit more than three decades later, three minor swaps — the city so named, luxurious color for black-and-white, Cole Porter for George Gershwin — could have allowed the same soliloquy to apply to the deliriously romantic montage of images that kicks off Allen’s Midnight in Paris.

This is an idealized vision of Paris, much the way Manhattan was an idealized vision of New York: cinematic love letters to iconic cities with palpable heartbeats. The Paris of Allen’s new film doesn’t — can’t — really exist, any more than the similarly strawberry-lensed Paris of Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s 2001 masterpiece, Amélie.

Although Allen remains an astonishingly prolific filmmaker — 42 big-screen features to his credit, going back to 1966, with an even more impressive one per year, without fail, since 1982 — he hasn’t had a no-argument-about-it critical and popular hit since 1986’s Hannah and Her Sisters. That’s not to say he hasn’t done fine work since then — Radio Days, Crimes and Misdemeanors, Mighty Aphrodite and Vicky Cristina Barcelona immediately come to mind — but merely that such films aren’t likely to stand alongside his best.

Well, add another title to Allen’s list of classics, because Midnight in Paris is grand, glorious, witty fun ... and extremely sharp and savvy filmmaking.

Although the delectable conceit that fuels this story has echoes of Brigadoon and even Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Allen’s shrewdly clever script moves in an entirely different direction and takes a playful poke at folks who tediously — or naively — insist that things were much better “in the good ol’ days.” Indeed, Allen eats his cake and has it, too, by waxing poetically about the charms of times past ... while cautioning those who’d try to take up residence.

Gil (Owen Wilson) and his fiancée, Inez (Rachel McAdams) are vacationing in Paris while planning their upcoming wedding: an impending union of remarkably dissimilar sensibilities. Although a wildly successful Hollywood screenwriter, Gil chafes at the soulless emptiness of this career, and thus is trying to write a novel; he rather vaguely hopes that Paris will prove a proper environment for this effort. Inez, perfectly content with the largess that Gil’s income provides, wastes no opportunity to belittle or bluntly dismiss this new artistic goal. Gil tolerates her put-downs with good-natured calm, in part because he secretly worries that she may be right.

This already strained relationship gets more brittle with the arrival of Inez’s parents, John and Helen (Kurt Fuller and Mimi Kennedy): the former a right-wing boor who’s suspicious of Gil’s liberal politics, the latter a materialistic snob.

Then things get even more fractious when Gil and Inez bump into Paul (Michael Sheen) and Carol (Nina Arianda). Paul loves the sound of his own voice, and wants to be sure everybody regards him as the smartest person in the room; he pontificates exhaustively on art, wine, food, architecture and anything else within eyesight.

Paul’s behavior reminded me of an all-time favorite Woody Allen scene, from Annie Hall, when his character deals with an obnoxious egghead in a movie line — who claims to be an expert on Marshall McLuhan — by producing McLuhan himself, who begs to differ. Paul, in this film, is an extreme case of that earlier egghead: the sort of lout we’d love to humiliate into silence, if we but had the means.

Sheen, a veritable chameleon in recent roles such as Frost/Nixon, The Damned United and Tron: Legacy, is hilariously arrogant as an archetypical know-it-all whom Allen deliberately sets up for ridicule. The clincher is that Paul doesn’t know nearly as much as he claims; Gil has his doubts fairly quickly, and then becomes certain when Paul argues with an obviously better-informed museum guide.

Inez, however, hangs on Paul’s every word, loudly insisting that of course he must be right ... about anything. And, reflexively, that Gil must be wrong if he disagrees.

Which seems a good moment to voice my sole objection to Allen’s script: Inez herself. I cannot imagine a set of circumstances that would prompt Gil to find this shrew attractive enough to date, let alone consider marrying. McAdams, so charming and personable in numerous earlier films, badly overplays her bad-girl behavior here; Inez is much, much too hateful.

Granted, we need cause to dislike her ... but opportunities abound, and they don’t need to be amplified by McAdams’ overbearingly nasty performance. (In fairness to the actress, she only delivered what Allen demanded; the error is his.)

Anyway, poor Gil finally escapes from everybody, choosing to walk home after a late-night supper. Hopelessly lost — as Inez snarkily predicted would be the case — he sits on some stone steps. Then, as a nearby clock strikes midnight, a rather unusual hansom cab slowly trundles up the road; its passengers encourage Gil to join them. With a what-the-hell shrug, he accepts ... and, moments later, finds himself attending a party with the likes of Cole Porter, Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald.

I’ve never been a fan of Owen Wilson’s acting; he too often relies on the same aw-shucks, slacker behavior that substitutes for actual emotional depth. But Allen definitely found the perfect use for Wilson’s dropped-jaw, deer-in-the-headlights expression of building astonishment, as Gil gradually realizes that he’s truly, genuinely drinking champagne with the artistic and literary heroes who populate his nostalgia-hued dreams.

And, later, when Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates) agrees to critique his novel ... what more could a writer possible ask for?

Well, perhaps a muse: That would be Adriana (Marion Cotillard), a vision of lyrical loveliness introduced as the current concubine of Pablo Picasso. Although smitten by his entire surroundings, Gil is particularly captivated by Adriana, and with good cause: Cotillard takes this already iconic character and gives her heart, soul and sensitivity, not to mention graceful, understated wisdom.

The night ends, as it must, but there will be others; true to her obnoxious nature, Inez doesn’t really miss Gil, as he claims a need for additional midnight walks in order to work on his novel (true enough, after a fashion). What happens next ... ah, but that would be telling. Let’s just say that Allen ingeniously brings Gil to an epiphany, while wrapping things up absolutely perfectly; I can’t recall having enjoyed the final scene of a Woody Allen film this much.

Mention must be made of several performances, starting with Corey Stoll’s magnificent portrayal of Hemingway. Stoll’s every line is delivered with a stern, macho sincerity that’s both amusing and oddly entrancing, allowing us to imagine precisely why Hemingway may have been such a charismatic personality. I hope Stoll is remembered among this year’s contenders for a supporting actor Academy Award.

Alison Pill also is quite memorable as the fragile, vulnerable, flighty and dolefully scattered Zelda Fitzgerald. Adrien Brody makes the most of his brief appearance as Salvador Dali, who insists that his name be pronounced dah-lee!

Although we’re heavily invested in seeing if Gil can sort out his life — he’s a nice guy, and deserves genuine happiness — his enchanted (and enchanting) trip is just as important as the destination. And while no shortage of films have included swooningly romantic encounters in the rain — McAdams has a great one of her own, in 2004’s The Notebook — Allen uncorks another great one, which echoes the establishing shots in the rain-swept portion of the Parisian montage with which he opens this story.

A deft bit of circular storytelling, that, which brings us back to where we began ... albeit much, much wiser.

And definitely charmed.

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