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Movie Review: Midnight in Paris

June 10, 2011

Samuel Johnson famously wrote that when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life. I feel the same, but as a raving Francophile, my magical city of never-ending delights has always been Paris. After seeing Midnight in Paris, I’m not tired of life, or even Paris. But I think I may be tired of Woody Allen.

Of course, Allen is famous for his mythologizing, pristine view of his hometown, New York. Even back in the 1970s, while Scorcese showed us the grime of its “Mean Streets,” Allen was lovingly framing iconic shots of the Brooklyn Bridge, Central Park and Riverside Drive. And as a long-time New Yorker, I always felt the same kind of love toward our landmarks. But Midnight’s opening shots of Notre Dame, Sacre Coeur, the Parthenon, the Tuileries, Place de la Concorde, Moulin Rouge, Eiffel Tower, etc., etc., and the conversations about Brasserie Lipp and Café Flore left me cold, and I say that as a former French minor and ranting, raving Francophile. This is the view of a man who still dines regularly at Elaine’s and Michael’s, a man who found the world he liked 30 years ago and has stuck with it since. The statis is suffocating.

Surely the charming Owen Wilson would solve my disenchantment, I assured myself, and to an extent, he did. The shambliest, most easy-going avatar of the Woody Allen neurotic persona, Wilison makes hoary lines sound almost believable. Wilson plays Gil, a wealthy “Hollywood hack” who really just wants to live in a Parisian garret and write the Great American Novel. The problem is, this type feels about 25 years outdated. Is there anyone in Hollywood who feels this way anymore? I’ll bet there are dozens who fantasizing about moving to Hawaii and become competitive surfers. Or to the Maldives to become a yoga guru for the world’s most luxurious resort. But a grown man who idolizes Hemingway and Fitzgerald seems… well, positively quaint.

The First Lady of France, Carla Bruni, is lovely and charming as a museum guide, and the young Léa Seydoux is an antiques stand clerk who can inexplicably afford to live in the very city center. (Money and class has never been Allen concerns. In his world, it goes without saying that the best is available without question.) Both Bruni and Sedoux possess kiloliters of intelligence and soul that go untapped in this picture.

So charming opposite Wilson in Wedding Crashers, Rachel McAdams is here also completely wasted as Inez, Gil’s clueless, materialistic harpy fiancée who says tactless, insensitive things and has absolutely nothing in common with her romantic beau. Kurt Fuller and Mimi Kennedy play her even more vapid parents. Poor Michael Sheen has to play an obvious know-it-all blowhard—another familiar, tired type. Sheen seems like an intelligent fellow. I’m fairly certain that if left to his own devices he could have made far more interesting commentary on Versailles, Degas and Picasso than the dialogue he’s given to say.

The movie is packed with celebrity cameos from the past: Kathy Bates as Gertrude Stein, Adrien Brody as a hilarious Salvador Dalí, Tom Hiddleston and Alison Pill as Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. At first it’s fun, like a game of “Where’s Waldo,” but the hits keep coming and coming, and the fun very quickly palls. Is this all the movie’s going to be? Well, yes, nearly so.

There is the lightest of love stories, with a very lovely Marion Cotillard as Adrianna, one of those mistress/artistic muses of the time who flitters from Modigliani to Bracques to Picasso. Cotillard is incapable of soulessness, even if her character also has barely enough matter to hold together onscreen.

Believe me, I may be the only critic who feels this way. Everyone else positively loves this film, calling it Woody’s best in years and maybe decades, and you may too. I get that Allen is making fun of his own compulsive nostalgia, but Midnight is definitely having this gâteau and eating it too. Even as he pokes fun at Gil and Adrianna’s worship of the past, he gets to indulge in his own historical and cultural tourism. It’s all picture postcard-shallow. With not a single believable or recognizable character or true conflict, this film feels under-developed and over-indulged. It feels like an easy, reflexive exercise on Allen’s part, like a blustering man of a certain age who after dinner and wine carries on about the passions of his youth, but mechanically, without his heart in it.

Worse, it made me question my devotion to the Allen of the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. Have all his characters been so hackneyed? The crack about Djuna Barnes leading in the Charleston, presumably because she was a lesbian, that I found so cheap and dumb in this film—would I have laughed at that 20 years ago, with pleasurable self-congratulation at knowing her biography and thus getting the joke? The same self-congratulation we’re meant to feel when we recognize Buñuel and Ray by their first names? Was Purple Rose of Cairo, another Allen film about escaping the present into the past, equally tiresome? No, I clearly remember Mia Farrow and Matthew Modine’s characters. Hers was a real story, theirs was a real romance. Or do I only feel that way because I was very young then, and we all burnish our youth?













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