Woody Allen's latest is as light as a soufflé, charming and, if not as laugh-out-loud witty as his greatest comedies, it at least recaptures the warm glow so often missing from his past 20 years of work.
Midnight in Paris is about magic in the Parisian night, a romantic comedy that grows more magical as it goes along. It's that rare Allen movie that is over well before we'd like it to be.
Owen Wilson gives his most effortless, unaffected performance to date as Gil, a rich California screenwriter vacationing in Paris with his smart but shallow shopaholic fiancée, Inez (Rachel McAdams, not bad). She's looking to furnish the Malibu beach house he's buying. He dreams of giving it all up for "a little attic in Paris with a skylight."
"Imagine this town in the '20s," he enthuses, "in the rain."
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But Inez is not hearing it. And her stiff arch-Republican parents (Mimi Kennedy and Kurt Fuller) recognize the "flaw" in Gil. Inez would rather see the sights with her college crush, an insufferable academic nicely played by Michael Sheen. Gil just wanders the streets. At night. In the rain, when possible.
Then he's summoned into a passing, vintage Peugeot limo. And when he gets out, he's at a party, hanging with F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald (Tom Hiddleston and Alison Pill). Cole Porter is at the piano. And there's Hemingway!
Few actors could pull off the befuddled but "what the hey" bemusement of Gil the way Wilson manages it. With a shrug, he accepts this supernatural twist in the City of Lights, foists his unfinished novel on Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates, perfect) and swoons over Picasso's latest mistress, Adriana (a vivacious Marion Cotillard).
Allen has always rewarded viewers who share his tastes in music, movies, cities and books, and Midnight in Paris is both a lovely travelogue and an orgy of name-dropping — Luis Buñuel, Archibald MacLeish, Man Ray. Not every role and actor playing those roles come off, although Corey Stoll makes a bluff young Hemingway, measuring himself against every man he meets, trying to figure out how to become larger than life: "Who wants to fight?"
Adrien Brody has the big laugh-out-loud turn in the whirl of "Lost Generation" exiles, deliciously sending up Salvador Dalí.
And anchoring it all is Allen's Everyman, given a genuine touch of soul- searching earnestness by Wilson. Gil recognizes the failings of nostalgia, that he has over- romanticized Paris and the 1920s and rain. It takes falling in love with voluptuous Adriana to make him consider these truths, and whether they matter enough to make him stop taking those midnight walks or if he'll just park it in his idealized city in an idyllic decade.
Allen doesn't do nearly enough with Gil's return to Inez and normalcy during daylight hours, although one scene, in which Gil interrupts the insufferable Paul's lecture on a Picasso painting by correcting him — Gil has firsthand knowledge, now — is Annie Hall hilarious. And when Allen has Gil give the suicidal Zelda Fitzgerald a Valium, I was reminded of every Allen monologue on Mahler, McLuhan, Faulkner or Fitzgerald. If nothing else, Allen knows these worthies well enough to have a great laugh at their expense.
After years of experiments in over-narrated melodramas and comedies that seem tone-deaf and out of touch, it's as if Allen typed out Gertrude Stein's line for Bates to read and for the first time in ages took it to heart. "The job of the artist is not to succumb to despair."