Woody Allen is a director who, though prolific, has his ups and downs. I've yet to catch myself up on the vast majority of his filmography (part of my on-going "Catch-up classics") but of those films of his I have seen, my overall opinion tends to be pretty binary. When his 2005 thriller Match Point was released, there was a select retrospective of his films at the cinema I was working at. I got to see Manhattan on the big screen and loved it - it entranced me. However, his Melinda and Melinda - though I loved the concept - failed in the execution. Match Point was also disappointing and I would need to revisit these film to more fully explore why and how.
Allen's two following films - Scoop and Cassandra's Dream - received no shortage of critical scorn and no cinema release here in NZ. You would've been forgiven for thinking Allen was now well past his prime and on the way out. And then he made the beautiful Vicky Cristina Barcelona. I loved it. You loved it. Almost everyone loved it. Hey, hey! Woody's found his mojo again! And then, due to his own schedule of making and releasing a film a year, there were another two misfires. But, the law of averages (and Allen's own talent and intelligence) meant we were bound to get another "good" Woody Allen film sometime soon. And Midnight in Paris is it.
Owen Wilson plays the Allen substitute this time, Gil. At first Wilson doesn't appear to be the right fit for the role at first - carried over preconceptions of his cultivated surfer/stoner image. But then you remember that this is the guy who co-wrote with Wes Anderson. And Gil is a Hollywood screenwriter, come to Paris with his fiancee Inez (Rachel McAdams) and her parents. He falls in love with the romance of Paris, wanting to roam the streets and move there to finish writing his novel. Inez and her parents though are far more interested in finding bizarre and expensive furniture for the future newlyweds' home - they have zero interest in Paris past the shops and tourist attractions. Gil is, of course, utterly mismatched with these people but he makes the best of it because he's relatively easy going and thinks he loves Inez.
All of this begins to change when, one night during a midnight stroll, Gil is picked up a cab on it's way to 1920's Paris - Gil's favourite period of French history, peopled as it is with Ernest Hemingway, Salvador Dali, Zelda & F. Scott Fitzgerald and more. And while this is no hallucination, this also isn't a typical "time travel" movie. Allen is not interested in the metaphysical aspects of Gil's journey or possible impact on future events (although there are one or two paradoxes set in motion by Gil). Allen is interested in having Gil experience and confront his romanticism; personified in part by Marion Cotillard's Adriana. An impossibly beguiling woman, she at first appears as something of an artist's muse flitting from artist to artist. But she and Gil experience a genuine connection to one another and an easy companionship.
As is usual for Allen's films, these are all very first world problems and upper class people. But that doesn't make them resonate any less. Gil feels a sense of nostalgia for a time and place he was never a part of. It's a feeling I am all too familiar with myself and while this tendency may feel more prevalent in today's society, Allen reminds that this too is nothing new. In fact, he rather hammers home the point when Gil and Adriana venture back to her favourite time in Parisian history, the residents which ache for yet an earlier time and so on. The desire for a perceived "better time" or "golden age" is a constant in humanity but, at the same time, we have to keep moving forward.
Midnight in Paris has a fun, almost whimsical approach while never coming across as light, fluffy or inconsequential. The cast, especially those playing around in 1920's Paris are all having a ball really chewing into these roles. While it won't stand up with Allen's greatest films, it easily stands above most others and is evidence that Woody Allen stil has some gas in the creative tank.