Dir. Woody Allen. U.S.A. 2011.

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In an interview with L.A. Weekly, Woody Allen said, “The human predicament is so tragic and so awful that, short of an act of magic, we're doomed.” Given his questionable view of the human condition, one wonders what the word “magic” means to him. There is little indication of it in his latest film, Midnight in Paris, a love letter to an imagined Paris in the 1920s. Set to the music of Sidney Bechet, the film opens with a 3 1/2 minute montage of Paris by cinematographer Darius Khondji's that is little more than a travelogue showing the usual tourist sights that you would see in a video about a Cancun all inclusive resort or Punta Cana Dominican Republic. Mr. Allen seems to be so enamored with these tourist spots like the Eiffel Tower and five-star hotels rather than showing the real Paris - the street vendors, bookshops, cheese, bread, wine, and pastry shops, outdoor cafes on the Left Bank, and quaint streets loaded with charm - the Paris of the Parisians.

As the film begins, we hear disembodied voices chattering away over the credits. It takes a few minutes to find out that we are listening to an engaged couple, Gil (Owen Wilson), a hack screen writer turned novelist and his shrill fiancée Inez (Rachel McAdams) talking about plans for their wedding. They are visiting Paris at the behest of their wealthy parents, businessman John (Kurt Fuller), who Allen lets us know right away is a right-wing Tea Partier, and his charmless wife, Helen (Mimi Kennedy), whose interests seem to lie in spending thousands of dollars for antique furniture. Almost immediately we can sense that the engaged couple may not be right for each other. 

Inez is always on schedule, making plans and demanding that Gil go along with her every whim. Gil, on the other hand, (at first anyway) is adjustable, willing to go along to get along, not a good beginning for a marriage. As if we did not have enough of insufferably shallow characters, however, (Allen's desultory persona is there in spirit), the director throws in old friends of Inez, Carol (Nina Arianda) and Paul (Michael Sheen), her pedant of a husband, who Inez used to have a relationship with. It is not a mystery why, after a few failed attempts at socialization and sightseeing, Gil insists on being alone to take walks at night to get his so-called creative juices flowing. 

The concept of the film is that Gil, while out walking at midnight, is picked up by an antique cab and enters a time warp, traveling back to Paris as it was in the Twenties, presumably an invigorating and exciting time to be alive when ex-patriot Americans and Europeans interacted with innovative artists, writers, and musicians in a Bohemian atmosphere. With an “Oh Gee, Oh gosh, Oh golly” expression on his face, Gil meets and hangs out with F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald (Tom Hiddleston and Alison Pill), Ernest Hemingway (Corey Stoll), Cole Porter (Yves Heck), Pablo Picasso (Marial Di Fonzo Bo), Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates), Salvador Dali (Adrien Brody) Luis Bunuel (Adrien de Van), all shown together like the director was testing the audience to “Name that Tune”. Naturally, they are all so fascinated with the exotic Gil.

What could have been a wondrous and entrancing experience becomes a stupefying cliché in Allen's hands. The 1920 artists are mostly one-dimensional caricatures delivering “clever” dialogue without spontaneity or wit, except for Stoll's lively discussion with Gil, a scene that begins to show promise for the film's direction but is soon dropped. With some exception, most of the characters resemble the cardboard cutouts from Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure. Hemingway, the macho man, talks about his war exploits and challenges Gil to a boxing match, Dali pounds his chest shouting “I am Dali! Dali!, Picasso feuds with his lovers and so forth on into the night. Meanwhile, Gil becomes smitten with Picasso's lover, the entrancing Adrianna (Marian Cotillard) and makes his return every night at midnight in the same vintage car.

Gertrude Stein agrees to read and comment on Gil's novel about a nostalgia shop. What else would she do with her time? The film gives the impression that life in that era was one big party with important artists never doing any work, never feeling lonely and depressed, and never seeking the quiet places, suitable for reflection and serious thinking. Of course, Adrianna isn't satisfied with the glorious Twenties and travels with Gil further back in time to the “Belle Époque” of the 90s.  If all of this sounds superficial and dull rather than full of mystery and fun, it's because it is. Allen has nothing meaningful to say about the human condition, witness his philosophy from Match Point that posits that life is all about luck and little else. 

His facile message here is that we should appreciate our present circumstances rather than long for something unattainable, (especially if we live in the lap of luxury as do most of Allen's characters). This is a worthy if banal message but it is lost on Gil whose actions on returning to present time negates whatever value the message might have offered. Traveling to a distant time should have a calming effect such as in Rod Serling's Twilight Zone episode from Season 1 called “A Stop at Willoughby” where a train stops in 1888, allowing a harried businessman to experience an illuminated world filled with simplicity and serenity, qualities nowhere to be found in Midnight in Paris, a film about as magical as shopping at Walmart.


Howard Schumann

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