With Woody Allen, it’s not so much a case any more of expecting a ‘return to form’, as seeing periodic glimpses of inspiration and genius.
Recently, his work has veered from the atrocious (Cassandra’s Dream) to the great (Vicky Cristina Barcelona), with a handful of tittersome morsels in between (Whatever Works, You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger). He’s still working at an alarming rate, and is still quite happy to gaze at intellectual middle class types and their over-inflated personal problems.
However, by now he is so comfortable with these tropes – life crises, marital issues, creative anxiety – that they are mere motifs, or a form of narrative shorthand that he can embellish ever so slightly, marking out each new film with a different location, a rejigged cast or small genre touches.
Midnight In Paris, the latest in what could be called Allen’s ‘tourist’ films, makes no claim at being anything else, starting as it does with an endless montage of Parisian vistas, a ‘day in the life’ overture which roots the audience in the French capital – its boulevards, its landmarks, its cultural history.
Paris brings out the romantic in Allen, as was previously seen 15 years ago in the musical Everyone Says I Love You, in which he staged a languid, dreamy song-and-dance sequence alongside the Seine, featuring himself and a knockout Goldie Hawn. Here, once more, Paris is a city that devours and delights, as Gil Pender (Owen Wilson), an erstwhile Hollywood scriptwriter, comes to the city with his fiance Inez (Rachel McAdams). After years of hackdom, he wishes to write his first novel, but his neurotic self-flagellation gets in the way, especially when faced with the aggressively-intellectual braggart Paul (Michael Sheen).
Paris, though, is inspiring, and he can barely walk ten paces without excitedly cataloguing the city’s rich artistic heritage. “Imagine this town in the 20s!” he raves, as Inez rolls her eyes and shops for furniture, with her equally disapproving parents (Mimi Kennedy, Kurt Fuller). Soon, Gil’s alone, wandering the streets and dreaming of the past. At which point, a church bell strikes midnight, and a vintage car stops nearby, ready to whisk him away on a jazz age adventure.
In a very similar way to the 1985 flick The Purple Rose of Cairo, where a dashing Jeff Daniels slips out of a cinema screen to woo a besotted Mia Farrow, the sudden shift into fantasy comes as a pleasant surprise, and Allen approaches what is quite a quirky, odd premise with an airy, easy feel, full of humour and wonder. On his late-night excursions, Gil meets a whole bunch of artistic ex-pats, from F Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, to Cole Porter and Gertrude Stein.
With a wit that is more often seen in his prose work nowadays, Allen sketches these cultural figures with not so much a reliance on biography, as the characters suggested by their work.
Hemingway (Corey Stoll), for example, is a hyper-masculine caricature, speaking in weighty prose about hunting lions and braving the horrors of war, while F Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, played with great vigour by Tom Hiddleston and Alison Pill, are straight out of The Great Gatsby, proclaiming ‘I’m bored!’ and gulping down cocktails.
It’s a brilliant set-up, and Allen fills out this premise with his highest concentration of jokes in years, leaving behind the desperate, awkward stabs at humour that have plagued his recent comedies, and at times even hinting at his wild, overstuffed scripts of the 70s. It even, for a time, rises above being ‘Lost Generation Fan-Fiction’, and most of its references avoid the curse of the literary in-joke. The image of Gil calming Zelda Fitzgerald’s emotional turmoil with a dose of Valium is just too funny, as is a hammy, eccentric cameo from Adrien Brody as Salvador Dali.
Indeed, the film is carried by Wilson, who is an easy target for those seeking the ‘Woody Allen character’. Although, while Gil fulfils the familiar checklist of insecurities, it is his dopey, naive outlook that sells the film, and even though Allen is the archetypal nervous neurotic, Wilson is better as the lovable fool. His bewildered reaction shots act as repeated punchlines throughout the movie, providing a perfect foil to the broad performances of the rest of the cast, both in the past and the present.
Midnight In Paris is so warm and delightful, that when it hits a slightly undercooked third act, where the jokes start to dry up, and resolution comes a little easily, it’s not a big deal. It’s testament to the solid, evocative ideas that form its backbone, that of exploring the character’s crisis in such an expressionistic, fantastical way, while also assessing the psycho-geography of Paris – how the city today co-exists with its many past incarnations. And when Gil is hit by a revelation, that nostalgia for bygone eras always elides the negative aspects, it is hard to not draw a comparison with Allen himself, who, even at his peak, had his off days.
It asks the question: why obsess over what once was, when this director’s latest work is such a gem?
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