Another gaudy, pandering travel porn from Woody Allen? So insinuates the banal, postcard-pretty montage of Parisian sights, set to—surprise!—jazz music, that opens the lazy auteur's Midnight in Paris. But then something happens right before the start of the film proper, when Owen Wilson's Gil, trying to explain his affinity for the City of Lights, says, to whom we don't know yet, and with more sincerity displayed by any of the world-travelling, petit-bourgeois ghouls from any of Allen's recent films, "This is where Monet lived and painted." Then, from the familiar-fonted credit sequence, the film cuts to a shot of a lake covered in lilies, perhaps the same one that inspired Monet's most famous creation, and one is struck by how jarringly Allen juxtaposes the opulence of natural beauty with the simplicity of human sentiment, elegantly setting up what becomes a lovely, if inconsistent, scrutiny of consciousness, art, time, and history.
Midnight in Paris is another conceptual film for Allen, and part of its charm derives from how its concept takes audiences, like its main character, by surprise. Gil, a writer (blocked, natch) visiting Paris with his horrible fiancée, Inez (Rachel McAdams), and her even-worse parents, snobs who wouldn't be entirely out of place in Allen's own Upper East Side bubble, retreats from his elitist companions to indulge his nostalgia for Paris. Unable to find his hotel, Gil rests tiredly on an ancient staircase when a church's chimes of midnight ushers in a retro car from which a group of party-happening Parisians call to him. Getting in, he travels to a party where he meets a woman and a man who were lost once as he is now, Zelda (Alison Pill) and F. Scott Fitzgerald (Tom Hiddleston), but are they real, actors perhaps, or just figments of his imagination? More importantly, is Gil even real?
The film is at its finest when the meaning of Gil's frequent retreats into his gilded reveries is left, for audiences, cannily unexplained. In one of the most beautiful scenes from Allen's canon, Gil leaves a café where he's just met Ernest Hemingway (Corey Stoll), to bring back to the writer a copy of a work in progress, a novel about a shop that deals in nostalgia, only to return to the café and find in its place a laundromat. The moment, like Gil's own desperation about his life and future, resonates with more sadness than humor, and his confusion won't be lost on anyone who's ever mourned the turning of, say, a historic club into something as mundane as a mall or dormitory.
Gil's dreams, or whatever they are, tease him like a Grim Reaper's crooked finger summoning him from across the waters of a vast underworld. In this strange sanctuary of his mind, where a portal will eventually open up from the '20s to an even earlier time, he meets Pablo Picasso (Marcial Di Fonzo Bo), Salvador Dalí (Adrien Brody), Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates), and my favorite director, Luis Buñuel (Adrien de Van), among others. And it's in the film's most irreverent, introspective moment that Gil pitches Buñuel the idea for the Spanish filmmaker's own The Exterminating Angel, whose story, about upper-class types unable to leave the prison of their own making, is believable as an account of Gil's own life.
Midnight in Paris is Allen's strongest movie in at least 10 years, a fantasy about delusion rather than a deluded fantasy itself, but it's no masterwork. It's been longer than a decade since the writer-director has written a role for a woman as rich and complex as the ones he gifted to the likes of Diane Keaton, Mia Farrow, and Gena Rowlands, and the ladies of Midnight in Paris are either whores, harpies, or banal innocents, none more obnoxious than McAdams's Inez, a woman whose sheer and utter reprehensibility, her craven class-mongering, is pitched at such a supremely shrill level that it squanders the film's potential greatness. For all his flaws and searching to become a better man, lover, and artist, you never quite believe that Gil would make a mistake as horrible as this obscene caricature of womanhood.
Worse yet is how Allen chooses to elaborate on the film's thesis, condescending to his audience in the same manner Paul, Michael Sheen's "pedantic" art connoisseur, talks down to Gil by calling out his unhealthy fixation on nostalgia as a ritual of denial, a flaw in his romantic view of the world. Even Gil too cleanly articulates the theme of the film when he travels with Picasso's ex-mistress, Adrianna (Marion Cotillard), from the '20s to the time of Toulouse-Lautrec, instructing the woman, when she says she doesn't wish to return to her own time, about how history shouldn't become our obsession. In scenes such as these, Allen writes this review for me.
And yet Midnight in Paris survives these missteps, almost entirely because of Wilson's exquisitely confident expression of his character's existentially defeatist outlook on the world. Even in the horrid, audience-pandering scenes where Inez's parents liberally share their very un-liberal views of the world, Gil's rejection of their fascist attitudes feels truthful; there's a humane sense, even when he's vigilantly stating his opposing political views, that he doesn't wish to cause insult to anyone. Wilson brings an achingly poignant rhythm to a character whose sadness and resignation, his desire to live in the past because he doesn't know how to make his own present, could be his own. Just as Gil sells The Exterminating Angel as autobiography, Wilson reveals himself to share Gil's mystification about his place in the world. By film's end, you're glad both have chosen to stay in it.