After 2005’s po-faced Match Point reinstated Woody Allen as a critical darling, he must have vowed to parlay his revitalized credibility into a full-blown Grand Tour, bouncing between England (Scoop, Cassandra’s Dream) and Spain (Vicky Cristina Barcelona), and alighting most recently in France for Midnight in Paris. The latest in Allen’s ongoing travelogue (the next installment, Nero Fiddled, will be set in Rome) commences with an old-fashioned overture, a montage of street scenes captured in their photogenic prime by DP Darius Khondji, set to a Sidney Bechet clarinet number, an obvious throwback to Manhattan’s Gershwin-swoony ode to New York City. Steeping himself in far-flung locations hasn’t exactly compelled Allen to forge new material so much as encourage him to approach longstanding themes and character types from a slightly less familiar perspective. Cultural crosspollination isn’t just Allen’s latest modus operandi; it’s one of Midnight in Paris’s overarching themes, exemplified by the Lost Generation’s artistic expatriation, against which Gil Pender (Owen Wilson) measures his own creative urges.
Midnight in Paris’s central time-travel conceit whisks Gil, a Hollywood hack screenwriter visiting the City of Lights with his untamed shrew of a fiancée, Ines (Rachel McAdams), and status-seeking presumptive in-laws (Kurt Fuller and Mimi Kennedy), back to the Roaring Twenties in a vintage Rolls; soon he’s splashing the wine with the likes of Hemingway (Corey Stoll), Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald (Tom Hiddleston and Alison Pill), Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates), and falling for “art groupie” Adriana (Marion Cotillard). The rewards of Midnight in Paris are admittedly manifold: Wilson’s charmingly flustered lead; Michael Sheen as bearded, bloviating academic Paul, and his diagnosis of Gil’s nostalgia syndrome; Darius Khondji’s evocative, dazzling cinematography (his second film with Allen after 2003’s Anything Else); the parade of illustrious stand-ins, among which Adrien Brody as a rhino-horny Salvador Dalí stands out. (Although, I have to say, the gag that has Gil pitching The Exterminating Angel’s premise to a bewildered Buñuel, while superficially amusing, does little justice to the man who made L’Âge d’Or, a legitimately bruising dissection of humanity’s conflicted psychosocial aspirations.) Then there’s the neatly recursive step further into the past, triggered by Adriana’s own hyperinflation of the late 1800s’ Belle Epoque, when she and Gil wind up at the Moulin Rouge sitting around a table with Toulouse-Lautrec, Degas, and Gauguin.
Midnight in Paris may be little more than a featherweight lark, as it has both been lauded and derided; at any rate, viewing the film in a theater certainly made it easy enough to get caught up in its surface pleasures. One of home video’s prime advantages is that it necessitates reviewing and rethinking. Seen under these conditions, Midnight in Paris continues a trend, evident in Allen’s more recent films, or maybe just made more glaring due to their relatively threadbare conception and execution, that calls to mind Whatever Works and its assertion that just making your way to the Big Apple will cure whatever ails you, be it homophobia or a nagging spouse. It’s a trend in which the writer-director panders to his audience in a particularly self-congratulatory manner, patting them on the back for their Wikipedia-deep familiarity with art and literature, doing next to nothing to prod them out of their comfort zone. Characters no longer question or challenge anybody’s life philosophy; at best, they merely provide an alibi, a safety valve.
Gil, for instance, jealously hoards a trove of romantic illusions, like the cornball notion that Paris is best perambulated in the pouring rain. By such obvious signs, as much as any aspirations to write the next great American novel, the audience is encouraged to view Gil as the sensitive artistic type, while with equally broad strokes Allen paints Ines as a two-timing poseur and her parents as money-grubbing Tea Party sympathizers. There’s nothing new about comedy utilizing familiar stock types, but the superficiality of Allen’s characters provides too-easy targets, a labor-saving device that robs the film of any heft or consequentiality, siphoning off any import from Gil’s ultimate decision to split from Ines and stay on in Paris, more or less in keeping with Rainer Maria Rilke’s dictum: “You must change your life.”
At least Midnight in Paris’s conclusion affirms change and growth in some baseline existentialist sense, through Gil’s realization that existence invites dissatisfaction, wherever and whenever you happen to be, thereby rendering it inversely proportional to Vicky Cristina Barcelona, in which the eponymous characters reject the possibilities, however contrived, that Spain opens up to them, only to return to the quiet desperation of their former lives. Cast aside as petty fact that Gil’s sea-change occurs altogether too easily and quickly, in the winsome form of a simpatico vendor (Léa Seydoux) who conveniently shares Gil’s taste for playing the flâneur in the rain, as well as his Cole Porter fixation. It’s all backward-gazing enough to make a viewer question whether Gil’s truly cured of his Golden Age fixation. Midnight in Paris gives abundant evidence that its writer-director is not.
Darius Khondji’s luxuriant and luminous cinematography, heavy on the orange-yellow and glistening cobblestones, is well-represented on the DVD, though I have to imagine it really pops on Blu-ray. The discrete surround track doesn’t use the ancillary speakers to much advantage, though it conveys dialogue and period music perfectly adequately.
A micro-featurette "Midnight in Cannes" contains about five minutes of interview footage from the press conference at Cannes. Woody Allen talks a bit about stealing all the credit for top-shelf performances in his usual self-deprecatory style. Stars Owen Wilson and Rachel McAdams each have a few lines about Allen’s directorial style. As you might expect, it doesn’t exactly get too deep or terribly insightful. Rounding out the rather slender supplements are cast and crew photo galleries and a theatrical trailer.
Fable-like, if not exactly fabulous, Midnight in Paris gets shoved onto shelves in a barebones edition from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment.