The Brilliance of Woody’s twilight
By Michael S. Goldberger Special to the Observer
Attempting to figure out where filmmaker Woody Allen’s brilliant “Midnight in Paris” slots in among his best works, it occurs that it would be just as difficult to decide which of Babe Ruth’s homeruns were the most magnificent. Featuring soulfully whimsical writing, exquisite direction and superb acting, he knocks this one right out of the park.
Drawing us in from the get-go with a perfect montage of Paris from every angle at every time of day, rain or shine, he essentially admits he can love another city almost as well as he does New York. It is the playground for this elegantly literate comedy. By film’s end Woody charmingly reaffirms every glorious notion and myth about the city of lights.
It will prove a most alluring and challenging crucible for Owen Wilson’s Gil Pender. A successful screenwriter on vacation with his fiancée, Inez (Rachel McAdams), and her parents, he hears the call of his passion. Maybe he should just chuck Hollywood, move to Paris and devote himself to a life of belles-lettres. You know, do the Left Bank thing.
Then the magic is introduced. Just in case Gil needed further inspiration to engage in the literary dream that Paris evokes, one night when the wanderlust takes him exploring through the streets, a strange thing happens. Pulling up in a 1920 Peugeot Landaulet limo, several revelers beckon Gil to join them. Hesitating only a second, he hops aboard.
They arrive at a party. Hmm…must be a costume gala. Everyone is dressed in the glamour of the Lost Generation, Paris, circa 1920s. And then a fellow whose wife just happens to be named Zelda, introduces himself as Scott Fitzgerald…F. Scott Fitzgerald, he adds. If ever there were a theme park to fulfill one’s fantasy, Gil has stumbled upon it.
He meets them all, a pantheon of the great scribes, painters, critics, pundits and hangers on, and, what’s more, they like him. This includes Kathy Bates’s marvelously interpreted Gertrude Stein who, Ernest Hemingway assures, would be the best to evaluate the novel Gil has been struggling to write. Tellingly, it’s about a man who runs a nostalgia shop.
Gil escapes to this world from the appointed pickup spot each midnight, drawing only the slightest suspicious inquiry from Inez. The beautiful but self-absorbed lass has not fallen far from the tree. She assures her heinously materialistic mom (Mimi Kennedy) that, while odd, Gil will be a good provider. Besides, he isn’t to be taken too seriously.
It’s a parable worthy of Aesop, replete with a beautifully iterated panoply of familiar Allen themes about love, career and squeezing the utmost joy and knowledge from life’s big puzzle. Intelligently convivial, it invites us into the big joke, name dropping, edifying and adding the author’s twist on the storied era he so lovingly praises and deconstructs.
Plus, there’s a twist within the twist, and a heartfelt love story tucked dreamily inside the romantic comedy. Her name is Adriana. Played by Marion Cotillard, the would-be couturier to the stars has lived with Modigliani and Picasso, though not at the same time, and won Hemingway’s affections. She tacitly becomes Gil’s guide to 1920s Paris.
Sad-eyed and wise beyond her years, she exudes a vulnerability and fatalism Gil can’t help but find attractive. What’s more, she takes him seriously, as she does the devotion to art for art’s sake. And like Gil, she pines for another era. The comparative wistfulness is terrific and informing. Gosh, this is an awfully good piece of writing.
Naturally, Allen suffuses Gil’s 1920s paradise with the great melodies of the time, and makes sure to have Cole Porter (Yves Heck) himself at the piano one night, regaling partygoers with those intelligently significant lyrics. The casting is great. With just a touch of defining caricature added, everyone looks and acts as we imagined they would.
Corey Stoll is especially funny as Ernest Hemingway; Alison Pill and Tom Hiddleston are appropriately reckless as Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald, respectively; and Adrien Brody is a hoot as Salvador Dali. If you’re looking for an early handicap on the nominations, figure Kathy Bates as a strong possibility for best supporting actress.
Insofar as Owen Wilson’s writer in wonderland, this doubtlessly is his best performance to date. Indeed, he distinguished himself in “The Royal Tenenbaums” (2001) and has achieved amiability via several farces. However, whether it’s because Woody inspires actors or he recognizes their hidden ability, here Wilson expands his thespic menu.
And Allen, playing Auntie Mame to our Patrick Dennis, generously wants to show and tell us every smart and comical thing he knows. Thus, whilst trying to figure where this fits among the filmmaker’s finest works, and recalling Robert Browning’s phrase, “the best is yet to be,” it occurs “Midnight in Paris” just might herald a new dawn for Woody.
“Midnight in Paris,” rated PG-13, is a Sony Pictures Classics release directed by Woody Allen and stars Owen Wilson, Rachel McAdams and Kathy Bates. Running time: 100 minutes