When dealing with a legendary director’s newest film, it’s always dangerous to compare the work to their classics. One walks a very fine line when saying that a movie only out a matter of days is up to par, or even in some cases superior to, the top tier of their filmography. It’s just not something you do willy-nilly. But hell, I’m about to do it. Woody Allen’s new film Midnight in Paris is one of his very best. Allen has directed over 40 films, and I place this latest one easily into his top 10, and maybe even a little higher. While not on the level of Anne Hall or Manhattan, this is the best work of his in a long time (and this is coming from someone who’s literally never seen a Woody Allen movie I didn’t at least find to be decent). The movie continues his trend of vaguely remaking his top level works by recycling ideas, and this tale shares a lot in common with The Purple Rose of Cairo. While a step down from that, it’s still incredibly charming and one of the most purely entertaining cinematic experiences of 2011 so far.
Gil Pender (Owen Wilson) loves Paris. A screenwriter on vacation with his fiancée Inez (Rachel McAdams) and her parents, Gil wants to embrace the romance of the land so he can stop writing crummy movies and write a great and personal novel. No one else shares his romanticism, though. They see it as mostly an excuse to shop. When Gil decides to take a late night stroll around town while Inez goes out with her friend Paul (Michael Sheen), he finds himself magically transported into the Paris of a bygone era. All of his writing heroes are there, from Ernest Hemingway (Corey Stoll) to F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald (Tom Hiddleston and Alison Pill, respectively), as well as Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates)…not to mention Salvador Dali (Adrien Brody), Luis Bunuel (Adrien de Van), and Pablo Picasso (Marcial Di Fonzo Bo). He interacts with them all, but he forms the strongest bond with the lovely Adrianna (Marion Cotillard), a woman who is just as bored with her present time period as Gil is with his. As their friendship deepens, he begins to question just what he has with Inez.
Could it possibly be that the grass actually is greener on the other side?
I’d never have guessed it, but Owen Wilson is a perfect choice for the “Woody Allen role.” By removing the neurotic New Yorker aspect of the role, Wilson makes this a more interesting and confident character than it normally would have been. What could have been a real case of miscasting ends up being a wonderful decision and perhaps Wilson’s best performance in some time. We follow Gil through the story, and you get to know and like him, something increasingly rare these days. Wilson does a great job. As for McAdams, she’s a bit wasted here, incredibly beautiful but not much more than the generic materialistic rich girl. They have the right type of chemistry with each other, but her character could have been better. Cotillard fares better, essaying a lovely portrait of a woman yearning for the past.
Her chemistry with Wilson is exceptional. The ensemble cast is terrific though, led by a scene stealing performance by Stoll as Hemingway. He’s very memorable and could be a dark horse Best Supporting Actor contender, as he embodies the famous writer perfectly. Hiddleston, Pill, and Bates are very good as well, though their time on the screen is limited. Sheen is having a lot of fun as the adversary to Gil, but it’s far from a demanding role. There’s also a cameo by Carla Bruni, but it’s nothing too special.
Allen’s direction is similar to what it’s always been, but he adds a bit extra with the opening sequence, a travelogue of sorts that highlights Paris in a simple but effective way. You don’t get the extra flourishes that he occasionally employs, but this is a very solid directing job. As for his writing, it’s got a bit of an extra punch, which usually means it was a more special project for Allen than normal.
He loves Paris, and wants us to love it as well. Go figure, he succeeds with flying colors!
Midnight in Paris is firmly in the category of “light entertainment”, and that prevents is from really being a classic Woody Allen picture since it lacks much in the way of depth, but it’s still an excellent movie. Sweet and sentimental in the all the right ways, the only word to describe the flick is that it’s delightful. If you like the sound of that, then you’re in for a treat. Allen fans will be thrilled with this, but even non-fans can find this as a more accessible work. I think it’s good enough for Oscar consideration, but time will tell on that front. Suffice to say, this is one of my favorite films of the year so far.
John Foote’s Review (****)
So you might be asking…where’s John been? Well friends my wife has been struggling since 2008 with cancer of the brain, and in March of this years she suffered fie massive seizures in three hours, which told us something was very wrong in her brain. Sure enough the tumor was active again, and growing at a rapid pace. After two months of chemotherapy, it had gotten bigger, not smaller, so they performed her second surgery in June, taking as much as they could without damaging. The downside to brain cancer is that the cancer has stalks or roots that descend into the brain, and they cannot get them without harming my girl. So they took everything but these stalks, which we are told are an aggressive form of cancer. From there they put her on another aggressive regiment of chemo, which has knocked the hell out of her. Needless to say I am her caregiver, which is my pleasure, but I have not had a lot of time for writing. The support shown us has been deeply moving, as have the messages and e-mails. Say a prayer if you believe in that sort of thing…she’s worth it, believe me.
The older generation can certainly still show this new generation of film directors a thing or two about storytelling.
Leave it to seventy plus Woody Allen, the finest screenwriter of the last forty years to come up with one of his very best films in a year filled with loud and vulgar garbage littering our movie screens. Allen, rather brilliantly, reminds people that movies are about life, about people, about relationships, and certainly not about explosions and chase sequences. HIs movie magic comes from within the characters he writes so eloquently and guides his actors gently to the wonderful performances they give.
For forty years Allen has been the most active film director in movies, averaging a film a year since 1971, sometimes two, and often finding the time to act in someone else’s work if it interests him. The studios love him because his films have never cost more than eighteen million dollars, and in worldwide release, DVD rentals and sales and TV sales, always make money. It’s easy to make money when the cost of making the film is so low. Actors revere him and drop their high price to be in a film directed and written by Allen, their belief being that he will make them a better artist (and he always does). Granted his audience is smaller than most, his appeal not as broad as a Scorsese or Spielberg, but there is an audience out there starved for good cinema, and Allen provides it.
His breakthrough work was Annie Hall (1977) which in the year of Star Wars (1977) won Academy Awards for Best Film, Best Actress (Diane Keaton), Best Director and Best Screenplay, all of which made Allen one of the most important directors of the cinema rich seventies. In the years since he has given us many masterpieces such as his black-and-white valentine to New York City, the breathtaking Manhattan (1979), Stardust Memories (1983), Broadway Danny Rose (1984), The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985), the breathtaking Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989), Husbands and Wives (1992), Bullets Over Broadway (1994), the murderous thriller Match Point (2005), unlike anything he had ever done, and Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008), a few very good films, such as Interiors (1978), Alice (1990), and some that just did not quite work, like Another Woman (1987), September (1988), The Curse of the Jade Scorpion (1997), Anything Else (2002), Scoop (2006) and Whatever Works (2009).
Yet even his failures, and they exist are a study of artistic growth for the director. He has always possessed the courage to make part of his life his art, to write about what he has lived, which from time to time has perhaps told us too much about him. Twenty one times he has been nominated for the Academy Award, fourteen as Best Screenwriter, winning twice, six as Best Director, winning once, and once as Best Actor, for Annie Hall (1977). Actors such as Alan Alda, Diane Keaton, Dianne Weist, Mira Sorvino, Penelope Cruz, Mariel Hemingway, Juliette Lewis, Mia Farrow, Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, and Martin Landau have done their finest work for Allen, many of them winning Oscars or critics’ awards for their work.
Since leaving his beloved New York to shoot his films in Europe, largely due to financing reasons, Allen’s work seems newly charged with energy and passion, as though the locations and ghosts of the past were speaking to him and allowing him to be new once again.
There is a freshness to his work that was sadly lacking in the latter part of the nineties, as though he is discovering new things about life, about love, about himself, and projecting those lessons into his films. The ghosts of Paris come to life, literally, in Midnight in Paris, his newest and one of his very best films, and these ghosts walk the landscape of the present.
Gil (Owen Wilson) is an unhappy screenwriter working on a novel he hopes will bring back the joy of writing he so misses, HIs materialistic wife, portrayed with furious energy by Rachel MacAdams drives him crazy, though he concedes that her parents are even nuttier than she is. Gil takes to walking the streets of Paris and finds himself strangely teleported back in time where he encounters such historical figures as Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates), Ernest Hemingway (Corey Stoll), Salvador Dali (Adrien Brody) , and most influential to Gil, the great American writer F. Scott Fitzgerald (Tom Hiddleston) and his wife Zelda (Alison Pill). These strange encounters with the ghosts of the past allow Gil to put his life in perspective and slowly he comes to realize what he wants in with his life, with himself, with Paris and even to a degree with these ghosts walking as though they were alive.
The film is a lovely fantasy, which is a path Allen has walked before. Remember the hero in the movie within the movie in The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985) stepping off the screen and coming down t exist in the real world? No big effects…it just happened, which is how Allen conveys the magic of time travel within this film; it happens and we believe it.
Owen Wilson is a sheer delight in the film, doing the finest work of his career, but the revelation is Rachel MacAdams, who locks onto her character and displays a range and abilities previously never seen. She is tremendously good, and I suspect Allen will cast her again in the very near future. The actress seems to find herself, the best part of herself in Allen’s dialogue and lets loose with a dynamite performance that could make her one of those select ladies to win an Oscar in a Woody film. I have never much liked her work, have always felt her limited, but here she seems to crackle with energy, with just a hint of nastiness and edginess to her lines, allowing us to see what a materialistic nightmare she truly is That we encounter her parents and see precisely where it comes from is just an added bonus.
Paris comes alive for Allen, he captures the present and the past in all its glory and in doing so allows the past to reach forward and make an impact on the future, in this astonishing and wonderful work.
One last comment about how deeply this impacted me. Earlier this year I accepted a post at Humber College teaching Film History, and Genre Study. I studied at Humber in the early eighties but had not set foot in the college since leaving. Walking in for the first class I felt that no time had passed and fully expected to see my friends Danny and Kevin sitting in the lounge, or come bopping around the corner.
The smells were the same, the feel was the same, and though the college had grown substantially, it felt good to be back. I found myself sitting in the area where we used to hang out, and as luck would have it my classroom is one of my old classrooms, which was simply bizarre. The ghosts of my past seem to be all around me when I am there, thus it was interesting to see this very thing in a film.