Midnight in Paris

Woody Allen enlists Owen Wilson for a charming, hilarious trip through Paris present and past.

Woody Allen

Trevor Gilks

2011

Woody Allen’s interest in giving audiences what they want has been on the wane since Small Time Crooks, but it returns with a vengeance in Midnight in Paris, a classic crowd-pleaser from a man increasingly prone to self-indulgence and alienating retreats into his own mind. Allen has formed many different relationships with his audience over the years — sometimes we’re his surrogate therapist, sometimes he’s a professor lecturing us on the ways of the world, sometimes we’re a testing ground for half-finished ideas — but this time he’s back in the role of entertainer, telling jokes and orchestrating a good time. This is not one of the movies he’s made for himself, this is a movie for us.

Midnight in Paris has a lot in common with a lot of different Woody Allen movies. The one it gets compared to most often is The Purple Rose of Cairo, although I’d argue that its true spiritual successors are Bullets Over Broadway and Sweet and Lowdown — slick, streamlined comedies with energetic and slightly off-kilter senses of humor. Midnight in Paris would have fit right in with Allen’s ‘90s movies.

The movie opens with establishing shots of its setting, Paris. As with Match Point and Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Midnight in Paris uses its city as more of a backdrop than an environment. Every exterior shot seems delicately framed to shout ‘Paris!’ at the top of its lungs. This suits the material of the surrounding movie perfectly — it’s about being in love with Paris, so it makes sense that the cinematography is in love too.

Scene from Midnight in Paris
Owen Wilson and Rachel McAdams in Midnight in Paris
Owen Wilson, Michael Sheen and Rachel McAdams in Midnight in Paris

The opening “Best of Paris” montage is followed by Allen’s trademark white-on-black credits. Instead of music, the credits are soundtracked with the movie’s first conversation between the as-of-yet-unseen protagonists. This approach is new for Allen, but the actual conversation couldn’t be more familiar. The lead characters are Gil (Owen Wilson), a struggling novelist, and Inez (Rachel McAdams), a castrating harpy. Two characters straight out of the Woody Allen Screenplay Factory.

Gil is a wildly successful screenwriter who churns out hit movies but has nothing but disdain for his job, which is not the easiest thing to relate to. Woody Allen is one of the only people in history to have had the luxury of getting bored of making popular movies and millions of dollars at the same time, a fact which he doesn’t seem to realize. Another thing that’s not quite as universal as Allen seems to think is their style of travel — they stay in palatial hotel suites bigger than most New York apartments, just like Allen did in Wild Man Blues.

What separates Gil (slightly) from the scores of struggling, stuttering novelists that populate Woody Allen movies past is that Allen seems very affectionate towards him. If you think about Josh Brolin in You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, Jason Biggs in Anything Else or even Sam Waterston in September, they’re all vaguely pathetic, a trait perhaps borne of Allen’s self-deprecation. This time, though, he’s a lovable goofball and you can feel Allen rooting for him. He even relinquishes one of his rare happy endings.

The rest of the characters, perhaps accordingly, are two-dimensional antagonists. Inez (Gil’s fiancé) and her parents are hyperbolically critical, dismissing and insulting Gil constantly, often in front of others. It’s believable that Gil and Inez would fall out of love over the course of the movie, but the fact that they’d ever be together in the first place is beyond credible (even by the standards of a movie involving time travel).

Rachel McAdams in Midnight in Paris

The other antagonist is Paul (Michael Sheen), who plays one of the great villains in the Woody Allen universe: the pseudo-intellectual. Remember that scene in Annie Hall where Allen righteously schools the blowhard in front of him in the movie line? That scene is now taken and elevated to subplot, with Gil filling in for Alvy Singer, Paul filling in for the guy in line, and Pablo Picasso filling in for Marshall McLuhan.

Michael Sheen and Carla Bruni in Midnight in Paris

While the characters may not be deep, the performances are pitch-perfect. Wilson is effortlessly amiable, Sheen has a good time reveling in his villainy, and McAdams is as unpleasant as I’m sure she was meant to be.

Rachel McAdams, Owen Wilson and Michael Sheen in Midnight in Paris

What Gil really wants to do is write a novel (of course). He’s got one started about a man who operates a nostalgia shop which allows him to live in the past, in the eras in which he felt like he was meant to have lived. Gil, like all of Allen’s novelists and playwrights, has based the lead character on himself. Gil too dreams of having lived in another time, namely 1920s Paris, where he imagines he’d spend his nights hobnobbing with F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein and Pablo Picasso.

The movie’s big twist, of which I’m sure you’re aware, is that Gil stumbles upon a town car that picks him up at midnight and transports him back to the 1920s. Once there, Gil meets all of his above-mentioned idols, and many more, all of whom conveniently happen to be hanging around together and greatly interested in meeting him.

Owen Wilson in Midnight in Paris

Taken on their own, the present-day Paris scenes with Inez and Paul are not much different from (or much better than) any of Allen’s weakest ‘00s comedies, but this time their obviousness and simplicity has a purpose. Like Mia Farrow’s one-dimensionally bleak reality in The Purple Rose of Cairo, they help illuminate the protagonist’s desire (and need) to escape into fantasy. If Gil’s reality was less oppressive, it wouldn’t make as much sense for him to spend his evenings traveling backwards through time, nor would it be as cathartic when he does.

As soon as Gil embarks on his journeys through time, the movie gleefully abandons the staid, over-familiar relationship drama and explodes with live-wire comic energy. Gil meets everyone from the Fitzgeralds (Scott and Zelda) to Ernest Hemingway to Salvador Dali, or, more accurately, hilariously exaggerated versions of them.

Allison Pill and Tom Hiddleston in Midnight in Paris
“We are Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. The Fitzgeralds. Isn’t she beautiful?”
Owen Wilson, Corey Stoll and Gertrude Stein in Midnight in Paris
“Ms. Stein has agreed to take a look at your work. She will be fair and true.”
Owen Wilson and Adrien Brody in Midnight in Paris
“Don’t you see? I’m traveling through time. I’m from the 21st century.”
“Yes, this makes sense.”
“Yeah, but you guys are surrealists. I’m just a normal guy.”

Gil also runs into Cole Porter, Josephine Baker, T.S. Eliot, Luis Buñuel, Man Ray, Henri Matisse, Gertrude Stein, Pablo Picasso, and perhaps others I’m forgetting (or didn’t recognize). Most of them only stick around for a minute or two, if that, but they all make an impression, and none overstay their welcome. The cameo has been described as the lowest form of entertainment, which is perhaps true, but Midnight in Paris offers the highest form of cameos.

One review (which I can’t find now) referred to it as “Night at the Museum for Liberal Arts majors,” which is funny, but only sort of true. There are a few references that wink at fans — like when Hemingway looks around the bar and says, ‘it’s like a moveable feast,’ or when Gil pitches to Luis Buñuel a film about people who go to dinner and can’t leave — but for the most part, Allen does not demand much savviness from the audience. The jokes are broad and rely on only the most widely-known biographical details. Allen typically doesn’t suffer fools who don’t share his interests, but he’s uncharacteristically egalitarian this time around.

In other words, Midnight in Paris is to these great literary figures as Mighty Aphrodite was to Greek mythology. If you’re worried you’re going to miss the jokes because you haven’t read The Great Gatsby lately, you can stop worrying.

My favorite, and the most heavily featured, of the historical guest stars is Ernest Hemingway (Corey Stoll). Not unlike Penelope Cruz in Vicky Cristina Barcelona, he hilariously operates on a slightly different plane of existence than everyone else around him and refuses to engage anyone on their own terms. The two also share a sort of casual intensity. Just as Maria Elena mentioned to Cristina in passing that she had considering killing her, Hemingway responds to Gil’s innocent questions about writing with stories about hunting lions or fighting in trenches, and is prone to spontaneously challenging people to fights.

Corey Stoll in Midnight in Paris
“When a man who is brave and true looks death squarely in the face, like some rhino hunters I know, they are truly brave because they love with sufficient passion to push death out of their minds.”

The only person Gil meets that you definitely did not learn about in an English or Art History lecture is Adriana (Marion Cotillard), a beautiful (and fictional) French woman who’s serving as Picasso’s muse but has her eye on Gil. With her tendency for flightiness, she’s not as stable as Inez, but she’s sexy, fun, and not as critical. This puts Gil in that most common of Woody Allen male dilemmas. Adriana is Pearl to Inez’s Eve, Nola to her Chloe, Helen Sinclair to her Ellen, Dorie to her Isobel, Sam to her Sally, Melinda to her Susan, and so forth and so on.

Marion Cotillard in Midnight in Paris
Marion Cotillard and Owen Wilson in Midnight in Paris

As in Purple Rose of Cairo, Allen is able to make some pretty good self-aware jokes about the absurdity of the premise. Just as Tom Baxter’s cast members struggled with the ramifications of a character leaving the screen, Gil struggles to explain his situation to Inez. When a detective is assigned to follow Gil, he somehow winds up even further back in time and gets chased out of King Louis XVIII’s throne room and executed by the royal guard.

Scene from Midnight in Paris

As the fantasy sequences continue, they slowly start to lose steam (the inspiration is perhaps a little front-loaded). Near the end of it, Gil and Adriana start to get a bit tired of this movie’s manic 1920s Paris as well, and are transported into a new era, La Belle Époque (pre-WWI Paris), where more famous faces start to show up: Toulouse Lautrec, Paul Gaugin, and others.

Marion Cotillard and Owen Wilson with Toulouse Lautrec and Paul Gaugin in Midnight in Paris

Gil finds out that Adriana disdains her present as much as Gil disdains his own, and just like he fantasizes about the 1920s, she fantasizes about the 1890s. They then find out that the Belle Époque artists dream about having lived in the renaissance with Titian and Michelangelo. So, Gil realizes, maybe the problem is not which era you happen to be a part of, it’s just that the fantasies of another time and place are bound to look better than the reality of your current existence.

Owen Wilson in Midnight in Paris
“I’m having an insight right now. It’s a minor one, but I’m having it. The present is unsatisfying because life is unsatisfying. But this, this isn’t real, it doesn’t work.”

This message — about how reality is disappointing when viewed in comparison to fantasy — is similar to the one from The Purple Rose of Cairo, although there are a few differences. For one thing, Cairo was a lot more insistent — Allen was lecturing us on the nature of life, and he was not taking questions. This time the issue is raised more gently, as if Allen’s aware that, by this point, people are having a pretty good time and aren’t really in the mood for another bummer ending.

How the lesson unfolds for the characters is also different. Mia Farrow’s Celia was never the master of her own destiny, but Gil is. He takes what he learned from Adriana and acts on it, setting out to create a reality that hopefully won’t require so much fantasy. Celia, on the other hand, was never in a position to do that, so fantasy was forever going to play a major part in her life. In Purple Rose of Cairo, it was the audience being taught a lesson, but this time it’s Gil.

As the movie ends, Gil leaves Inez, moves to Paris, and walks home with a nice French girl he met at the market while a Sidney Bechet song plays them off. Happy endings are rare for Allen, and endings this conventional even more so. Gil takes the lessons he’s learned over the course of the movie and acts on them in order to improve his life, and in doing so, faces a bright new beginning as the movie ends. It’s a Frank Capra resolution in a Woody Allen world.

Léa Seydoux and Owen Wilson in Midnight in Paris
“Paris is most beautiful in the rain.”

As is always the case with Woody Allen period movies, the production values are outstanding. Allen’s long-time production designer Santo Loquasto, who retired after Whatever Works, has been replaced by Anne Seibel and Hélène Dubreuil, who were Oscar-nominated for their work on Midnight in Paris. The streets, bars and houses are realistic, as far as I can tell, but more importantly, they’re vivid and exciting, filmed with a nostalgic soft-focus fuzziness. Many of the period outfits, apparently, are genuine historical artifacts and nearly 100 years old. The most spectacular scene is a surrealist wedding in a dining hall flamboyantly decorated with taxidermy.

Marion Cotillard and Owen Wilson in Midnight in Paris

Midnight In Paris marked yet another so-called comeback for Allen, but this time it was more dramatic than usual. Its gross was double that of any Woody Allen movie since Hannah and her Sisters and over 10 times more than most of the ones in the last decade. Critics showered it with near-universal praise and it won a slew of awards, including an Oscar for Allen. Glowing reviews and awards were once things that Allen could once take for granted, but now they’re a rarity for him. The most impressive part of all is that Midnight in Paris did not, like Small Time Crooks or Husbands and Wives, get a big studio push. It received a very limited release at first, and slowly rolled out into more and more theatres based on its success. It was never destined to be a hit, it just became one by its own accord.

It makes sense that Midnight In Paris would be a huge hit, as it is funny, high-spirited and has an interesting cast, a catchy premise and even a tidy, happy ending. What doesn’t make sense, at least to me, is why the rest of Allen’s movies are so unpopular. The seemingly all-things-to-everyone comic masterpiece Bullets Over Broadway garnered a fraction of its success, and for nearly a month straight Midnight in Paris was making more money each weekend than Sweet and Lowdown made in its entirety. These are discrepancies that neither I nor Woody Allen understand (as he said in Woody Allen: A Documentary, “I’ve never been able to understand why some of my movies are so much more popular than others. To me they’re all equally appealing, or unappealing”).

Midnight In Paris doesn’t really feel like a personal movie for Allen. He seems preoccupied with craft and more concerned with making sure no one gets bored than with expounding his philosophies or probing his esoteric interests. Which is exactly what makes Midnight in Paris a good movie, but also what stops it from being a great one.

Fun Facts

  • The general idea for Midnight in Paris was born decades earlier, as evidenced by this old Woody Allen stand-up bit in which he imagines himself hanging out with Ernest Hemingway and Gertrude Stein:
  • Carla Bruni has a small role as a tour guide. She was the first lady of France at the time, but she and her husband Nicolas Sarkozy have since been booted out of office.
  • Owen Wilson in Midnight in Paris and Jeff Daniels in The Purple Rose of Cairo (in his role as the actor, not the adventurer) have the same name.
  • At one point, Zelda Fitzgerald tries to commit suicide by jumping into the Seine River, just as Peter Sellers did in What’s New Pussycat 47 years earlier.
  • F. Scott Fitzgerald has appeared in a Woody Allen movie before. He played himself in Zelig (sort of).
  • Ernest Hemingway’s granddaughter Mariel co-starred with Woody Allen in Manhattan.
  • When Owen Wilson was cast, Allen heavily re-wrote the character (a rarity for Allen) to better suit his laid-back sensibilities.
  • Wilson, like me, assumed that Allen had seen him in something like Bottle Rocket or The Royal Tenenbaums, but it turns out Woody was a big fan of Wedding Crashers (which I guess also explains Rachel McAdams’ presence).
  • Quentin Tarantino, a surprisingly avid Woody Allen fan, named Midnight in Paris as his favorite movie of 2011.
  • When offered their parts, the actors were not given the script or told the name of their character (even the ones playing famous historical figures). They were just given a handful of lines of dialogue.
  • Rachel McAdams and Michael Sheen met on the set of this movie and are now a couple with a child together.
  • Allen offered the role of Ernest Hemingway to Corey Stoll after seeing him in the play A View From a Bridge, which he had gone to see because it also starred his old pal Scarlett Johansson.
  • Stoll was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award.
  • Woody Allen won an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay for the third time and first since Hannah and her Sisters. Of course he didn’t show up to receive the award, but his name was read out by Angelina Jolie as she splayed out her leg in now-famous fashion.
  • Midnight in Paris was also nominated for Best Picture (first time for an Allen movie since Hannah and her Sisters) and Best Director (first time since Bullets Over Broadway).
  • Since the Best Picture prize goes to a movie’s producers, that means that Allen’s sister/producer Letty Aronson is now also an Oscar nominee.
  • Midnight in Paris and its award-season competition had a lot in common: Martin Scorsese’s Hugo was set in Paris in 1930s, a mere decade after (some of) the events here, and is about silent film director Georges Méliès, who Gil could very easily have run into during his midnight time travels; The Artist also took place in the ‘20s, and while it wasn’t set in Paris, it did have a French writer/director and star.
  • Midnight in Paris was a great success to be sure, but it’s often exaggerated. To put it in perspective a little bit: Manhattan was the 6th highest grossing movie of 1979, while Midnight in Paris was the 58th highest-grossing movie of 2011, behind Water for Elephants and the Justin Bieber concert movie.
  • I posted this review on the same day To Rome With Love was released into theatres in the United States. The moment I catch up, I’m suddenly a year behind.
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