“Midnight in Paris,” the latest Woody Allen comedy, will be available this week on DVD. It was one of Allen’s increasingly rare box office successes, in part because its effect depends to some extent on the audience’s erudition about art and literature. If you missed it in its limited release this past summer, now’s your chance to have some fun.
The story line is not entirely unfamiliar: a young man travels back in time where he meets the girls of his dreams. Here, the man is Hollywood screenwriter Gil Pender, played somewhat against type by Owen Wilson. Allen has asked Wilson to channel his director’s screen persona, rather than the surfer dude sorts we associate with him. He succeeds surprisingly well, even getting some of the neurotic tics and gestures Allen has all but patented.
Though successful in the movie trade he despises, Gil is trying to finish his first novel. He and fiancée Inez (Rachel McAdam) tag along on a business trip to Paris with his wealthy Philistine in-laws-to-be (Kurt Fuller and Mimi Kennedy). As the other three are chiefly interested in getting or spending money, Gil is left to wander the streets of Paris alone. He gets thoroughly lost one midnight and is picked up by what looks like a bunch of partygoers, dressed in 1920s costumes and chauffeured in a vintage limo.
When one of them introduces herself as Zelda and another as Scott, and when they tell Gil that the guy playing “(Let’s Do It), Let’s Fall in Love” on the piano actually wrote the song—well, he’s impressed by the accuracy of their role-playing. But then they introduce him to Hemingway (Corey Stoll), who talks like, um, a Hemingway narrator, and Gil understands he’s somehow entered a time warp. He asks Papa to help with his manuscript, but Hem refers him to Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates), who takes time off from critiquing Pablo Picasso to talk to the young man. He also meets Picasso’s mistress, Adriana, played by the luminous Marion Cottilard, and the two stroll the dark streets of the City of Light. (Allen unleashes cinematographer Darius Khondji to give Paris the full romantic treatment.) Later, he meets other artistic luminaries of an even earlier epoch, though it wouldn’t be quite fair to say who, why, or how. The time-travelling, apart from the fun it creates, underscores Allen’s theme about our relation to the past, collective and personal.
Fans of the arts, and particularly American Lit., will savor a good deal of the humor that others might miss. Allen has fun with the name-dropping, as do the numerous actors in cameo portraits. (Again, unfair to reveal.) The attempt to develop the idea of the necessity of living in the present, however much we may yearn for a mythic past, is somewhat contradicted by the film’s main action, given the past’s superior appeal. But the pleasure and the laughter generated by the sly, irreverent treatment of the names from that bygone era more than makes up for this small inconsistency.
“Midnight in Paris” is rated “PG-13”; however, it’s an “adult” film in the sense that teenagers will not get it, unless they are extraordinarily well-versed in the arts of the earlier 20th century, and maybe the late 19th, too. Like most of Allen’s later films, this one won’t make a ton of money, though it has certainly been respectable so far. But that’s not his aim. As does his protagonist, he wants to mine the past to create a work that adds to the present. He succeeds.