Woody Allen is a cyclical filmmaker – he follows a good film with a string of unforgettable and just plain bad films that he doesn’t seem to have his heart in. Given he consistently churns out one or two films a year, this leaves a lot of celluloid for his fans to slog through to get to the gems. I used to be a devoted fan and would happily sit through the more 'trying' films. But a few years ago, the balance shifted. He used to make two or three enjoyable films followed by a mediocre film. Now, he might make a good movie and follow this with three, four, five bad films. When I started consistently sitting through a fifth dud, I gave up. A filmmaker who once was one of my favorites is now relegated to catch-it-on-DVD status.
Allen's newest film, "Midnight in Paris", starring Owen Wilson (Danger, Will Robinson. DANGER!), Rachel McAdams, Kathy Bates, Adrian Brody and Michael Sheen, got a lot of good pre-release buzz, so I decided to give it a try and headed to the theater.
Allen has made some interesting casting choices, using a wide range of actors to play the leading man in his films, the role he would normally play, but has moved away from in recent years. Kenneth Branagh, Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, Javier Bardem, Scarlett Johannson, Larry David, Josh Brolin, to name a few. It is a strange mix and has produced uneven results. Some of these actors have played pale copies of Allen's persona; others have ventured to create something new. So, I wasn't thrilled to learn Owen Wilson was his latest choice. I have enjoyed very few of Wilson's films and it doesn't appear to be a good match. Allen's dialogue, his writing style, is very distinctive and I couldn't imagine Wilson making it work.
"Midnight" opens with a montage of beauty shots of Paris. This sequence is enough to make anyone who has been to the City of Light, anyone who has read about the City of Light, or anyone who has any desire to see the City of Light swoon. These portraits will make your yearning increase ten fold. Allen and his cinematographer Darius Khonji ("Seven", "Panic Room") capture every famous location, every famous street and neighborhood, painting each in sepia tones, giving us a romantic snapshot of each, as though they are taking us on an exclusive, inclusive walking tour.
After this introduction, we meet Gil (Wilson) and his fiancée, Inez (McAdams) who have joined her parents on a mostly-business trip to Paris. Gil is like a child in a candy shop and can't stop talking about all of the reasons he loves the city. He even tells his future wife he wants to drop his career as a screenwriter, move from Pasadena to Paris, and work on his unfinished novel. A walk in the rain wouldn't be bad either. Inez can't wait to return home and seems annoyed by Gil's dreams. Then, they run into Paul (Michael Sheen) and his wife, Carol (Nina Aranda). The old friends invite the second couple to join them for some sightseeing. Inez is fascinated by know-it-all Paul and is grateful to tag along. But Gil is bored and breaks away, he simply wants to walk the streets and soak up the culture, the ambiance. He quickly gets lost and at the stroke of midnight, an old limo drives up and the man in the back beckons Gil to join them. Gil climbs in and meets F. Scott Fitzgerald (Tom Hiddleston, Loki in "Thor") and his wife, Zelda (Allison Pill). They attend a party and Gil soon meets Ernest Hemingway (Corey Stoll, TV's "Law & Order: LA"), Salvador Dali (Adrian Brody), Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates) and Picasso's newest muse, Adrianna (Marion Cotillard). Naturally, Gil loves this world and the daylight hours in the present become more trying.
"Midnight in Paris" is far from the greatness of "Annie Hall", "Manhattan", "Crimes and Misdemeanors" or "Hannah and Her Sisters", but it has some moments. Allen's love of Paris and the era Gil escapes to is both obvious and infectious. When Gil talks about his love of the city, his desire to walk in the rain, to tour museums, to sit at sidewalk cafes, this is Allen talking, using this character to tell us his feelings. And Wilson does a good job of portraying Gil's love. When he first enters this other world with the Fitzgeralds, he does so in a way we can believe. He doesn't rub his eyes in an exaggerated way; he remains silent taking everything in. When he finally realizes this is no joke, he just goes with it. Would Hemingway agree to look at his book? No, but Hemingway wants Getrude Stein to read it. She agrees. Gil can hardly believe his luck. The next night, he is prepared, holding a copy of his unfinished manuscript when the clock strikes twelve.
With each new introduction, he becomes more and more comfortable and wanders into a restaurant where he meets Man Ray, Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dali. And as he becomes more comfortable with these people, Gil begins to utter little asides to each of the famous people, giving them hints to a future work they will create. These are funny moments, especially when the famous writer or painter doesn't get it, doesn't believe what Gil is saying.
As Gil spends more time in this world, he gets to know Adrianna better and their relationship blossoms in a sweet way, taking some nice turns along the way.
Wilson actually does a pretty good job in this film. It is a quiet, understated performance for him and a nice change of pace. Not only does Wilson seem to be handling the material well, Allen's writing seems looser, allowing the actor to get a handle on the director's writing. There are fewer references to psychotherapy, neuroses and other Allen mainstays than in previous films. Gil is simply fascinated by the city and the people he meets there.
Allen never has trouble casting his films because actors clamor to work with him. He has a huge reputation and has helped many actors achieve some of their best critical notices; Leonardo DiCaprio, Robin Williams, Billy Crystal, Hugh Jackman, Antonio Banderas, Anthony Hopkins, Michael Caine, Josh Brolin and many more have all appeared in his films. And he frequently has the good fortune to cast up and coming actors, usually after they have made a critically acclaimed film or just before they hit it big. These 'unknowns' have included Scarlet Johannson, Freida Pinto, Radha Mitchell, Jonathan Rhys-Meyers and others. In "Paris", Corey Stoll plays Ernest Hemingway and he is the best of the actors playing the plethora of writers, painters and artists. Currently on "Law & Order: Los Angeles", Stoll manages to capture the bravado and machismo of the famous writer in a way that also seems completely natural and right for the character. Every time Hemingway speaks, you can imagine him filing the statement away, to be used later in a potential short story or novel. It is a funny, spot-on performance.
The problem with so many actors clamoring to appear in Allen's films is that many of these actors take on small roles, sometimes very small roles, and because they are top billed, their performance seems disappointing. In "Paris", Adrian Brody plays Salvador Dali, the famous Spanish surrealist. He has one scene with Wilson's Gil, which is funny, but it doesn't add or contribute to the story enough to make it worth the time. Ultimately, having Brody around for only five minutes is more disappointing than the laughter his brief role creates.
Tom Hiddleston, Allison Pill and Kathy Bates are all good and they have a little more time to make their characters come alive.
During the present day moments, Gil spends a lot of time with Inez, as he feels he should, but he is just biding his time until he hears the clock chime midnight and he can return to Paris in the 20s. It is easy to see why - Inez is a pretty unlikable person and you have to wonder what Gil saw in her in the first place. Rachel McAdams does what she can with the role, but she is never sympathetic or even slightly likable. Allen seems to feel she needs to be completely unsympathetic to make Gil's burgeoning romance with Adriana acceptable. Why this is, I don't know. In previous films, we always felt a little something for the wife or girlfriend, felt some sympathy for them when their husbands or boyfriends started cheating on them. But Inez seems to have nothing in common with Gil, she doesn't support or share his dreams, she seems only interested in the material life, the good life, she seems to be from a whole different place altogether. Because she is such a polar opposite, she sticks out like a sore thumb and the role seems forced and unnatural.
Allen does work in a few funny jabs at current politics because Inez's parents seem to be staunchly Conservative. These lines are funny, but will also make the film seem less universal as time passes.
Michael Sheen is very funny as Paul, the know-it-all who everyone seems enthralled with. Everyone except Gil. He clearly can't stand Inez's old friend, yet Paul and Inez both seem oblivious to this. At one point, Paul gets into an argument with a tour guide as they stroll through a sculpture garden. Later, because Gil know has some first hand knowledge, he feels confident to debate Paul, leading to some laughs. Naturally, Inez shushes her fiancée because she only wants to listen to Paul. But even he seems to disappear after the first half of the film, as Gil becomes more and more captivated by the romance of Paris in the 20s.
This is the biggest fault with the film. Allen seems to have great fun introducing all of these characters and elements, but he has difficulty keeping them all going and simply abandons many to concentrate on certain aspects of the story. Maybe the director who could keep many character storylines going throughout the course of the film is gone. Maybe the director of "Hannah and Her Sisters" and "Crimes and Misdemeanors" is gone. I hope not.
Later, Inez and Gil have a fight. This scene has all of the elements of a great Allen moment- we watch the couple walk back and forth into the room as they argue, it seems like they might really get to the heart of the matter between them. But Inez makes a confession, which comes out of left field. It just seems arbitrary and forced. Worse, this scene seems out of place because the dialogue abruptly changes back to 'typical Allen'. Inez and Gil begin to talk as though they have been in therapy for years. The looseness, the freshness of the rest of the movie is gone.
"Midnight in Paris" is an enjoyable little trifle. The good parts are good, the bad parts are mostly just mildly annoying.