Saturday, June 25, 2011

'Midnight in Paris' is one smooth cocktail

The opening moments of Woody Allen's latest, "Midnight in Paris," are in many ways reminiscent of those of his 1979 "Manhattan." Shots of Paris, expertly framed by Daruis Khondji (who worked with David Fincher on "Seven" and "Panic Room"), alternate striking views of familiar landmarks with equally gorgeous compositions of shops and side streets. Set to a soft jazz and building through a morning, an afternoon rainstorm, and an evening, this introduction plays far more like a city symphony from the 1920s (like say, "Rain," or "Berlin: Symphony of a City") than it does the familiar, swooping establishing shots that litter almost every film set in a major city.

This set-up accomplishes two things: It alerts us that "Midnight in Paris" is (again, like the aforementioned "Manhattan," with which the film has many similarities) a poem to Paris itself, in love with the architecture and the layout of the city and burning to explore all of its secrets. It's also a little jab that this movie is all about 1920s culture, and the first of many little "in-jokes" for those who love the culture of Luis Bunuel, the Fitzgeralds, and Cole Porter.

Now, I'm one of those people who love Woody Allen movies. I think the repetition in his films actually signals a HIGH creativity of an artist who wants to re-explore and re-evaluate different themes, motifs, and ideas across a broad array of expression and across many decades. And while "Midnight" isn't his first film set in the city of lights (that would be 1997's "Everyone Says I Love You"), it certainly fits his recent fit of "tourist films." Starting with "Match Point," he's done four movies in London, one in Barcelona, one in Paris, and only one in his native New York City.

But to call Allen a "tourist" has a negative connotation that suggests a filmmaker bound up in the sights and less attune to the story. "Midnight in Paris" certainly, at a glance, suggests that Allen has constructed this film as an opportunity to shoot Paris in as many beautiful ways as he can, with Owen Wilson meandering through the streets as his latest neurotic surrogate. That glance would only take you through the first fifteen minutes, though.

Wilson's Gil Bender, a successful screenwriter who wants to give up his luxurious life to become a novelist, wanders the streets of Paris after his fiance (Rachel McAdams, doing her best in a surprisingly one-note role) decides to go dancing with some friends in the midst of their vacation. A bit drunk and a bit lost, he stumbles on a 1920s-style luxury car. The passengers invite him to a party, he steps inside, and before he knows it he's chatting casually with Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald and listening to Cole Porter play the piano.

Caught in a time spiral, Gil has figured out a way to travel back every night and interact with his idols and inspirations. 1920s Paris is, to him, the greatest time and place in the twentieth century, a moment he feels a deep connection to and harbors great nostalgia for.

The world Allen crafts is evocative and, well, particularly REAL. With lots of soft lighting and wide compositions, he encourages us to look around and soak in the beauty as we watch a parade of familiar literary and art figures. While this could leave room for lots of broad comedy, satire, and caricature, the real deftness of "Midnight in Paris" is in how well Allen seems to write all these characters. True, he's going off perceptions garnered from their works and public knowledge, but Ernest Hemingway (as played by Corey Stoll) strikes the right blend of depressed alcoholic and genius writer. Every time he's on screen I found myself in awe of what a great conception it was.

It doesn't stop there: Alison Pill's Zelda Fitzgerald is, as Gil says, "How we've been led to believe she is," and Adrien Brody's Salvador Dali, easily the most eccentric of the cameos, is wildly fun. Gil even pitches "The Exterminating Angel" to Luis Bunuel, an extended joke undoubtedly placed to reward film buffs. Needless to say, I was the only one in the theater laughing at that, but I was laughing hard. And Wilson, with his wide eyes and slack-jawed awe, is the perfect choice to act as the spectator's surrogate. His exuberance, fascination, and joy in these interactions are both palpable and pitch-perfect.

"Midnight in Paris" is a charming film, and has a kind of indescribable vitality that's lacked in many of Allen's recent films. He's so often interested in themes and wit, putting ideas about fate/chance, tragedy/comedy and the woes of human existence in play, he does sometimes miss those little storytelling subtleties that can lead to a big payoff.

Here, he's thinking about nostalgia, about pining for a different time and different place while ranting about the conditions of one's contemporary moment. Gil's fantastic time travel is not simply a meditation on Paris or a chance to construct grand representations of famous early-20th century cultural figures. It lets him experience the disconnect nostalgia creates. It's not that 1920s is "bad" or "backward," as it seems lovingly recreated in every different trip, but rather Gil realizes that it's not HIS time, that he worships these people who don't necessarily see themselves as brilliant. They're trying to create, but create something for their moment.

It's this arc of Gil realizing he needs to create for his moment instead of wallowing in his love (or might it be a kind of lust?) for the 1920s that really makes the film profound. And I do think "Midnight in Paris" is profound, the first one Woody Allen has made in some time. I might think most of his films are good, and so perhaps I was bound to like this one, but there's something about it that seems to transcend his often defeatist view of life.

In a final moment that seems so full of hope and romance, it's hard not to see "Midnight in Paris" as something more than an ode to Paris, a witty exercise in intellectual jokes, or a meditation on nostalgia. It is all of these things yes, but also something more universal and more powerful. It's Allen celebrating inspiration, the sheer act of finding beauty -- be it in a bridge, a building, a song, or a woman's smile. In playing these inspirations so grandly, Woody Allen has made an inspired film.

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