20 October 2011

Midnight in Paris

Written & Directed by: Woody Allen
Full credits at IMDb

Midnight in Paris, Woody Allen's hard to defend but easy to adore parable about nostalgia, opens with a coffee-table book's worth of postcard Paris views: the landmarks, the iconic tableaux, in sunshine and then in rain. But don't mistake the storm for a sly subversion of the city's allure. It just intensifies it. Owen Wilson takes the Woody Allen role—bringing a freshly wry and mellow charm to the neurotic archetype—a Hollywood hack with dreams of literary renown; he has a fixation with Paris, particularly during the 1920s (when it was lousy with American expats), particularly when it's raining. His cartoonishly unsupportive and materialistic fiancee (a misused Rachel MacAdams) would rather live in Malibu, live in the present, and take a taxi. It's unclear why they would've gone on a second date, let alone gotten engaged.

Allen's frantically paced output, maintained even as he ages, has resulted lately in scripts with lazy plot holes like that. But whatever mistakes he makes on the page—like indulging in the name-dropping that his script mocks through the pretentious character played by Michael Sheen—he makes up for with affecting themes and a host of talented actors impersonating dead celebrities. Traveling through time—without mumbo jumbo explanations, thankfully—Wilson lives his dream but also learns a lesson about nostalgia: it really is the denial of the painful present, as the pompous Sheen pontificates. In the 1920s, Wilson finds great modernists pining for Le Belle Epoque; in Le Belle Epoque, he find Epoqueans longing for the Renaissance. Truth is, all times are interesting times; great art is everywhere.

And still, Allen finds poignancy in the cold austerity of museums, which cage the past rather than live it, contrasted with the urbane, debonair, stylish party life in Paris after the first war. (A bar where Hemingway drank with Fitzgerald appears, in the present day, as a laundromat, illuminated by sickly green fluorescent light.) Staying close to the superficial glory of the City of Lights, Allen captures Paris' capacity to transport you through time, to contain the whole of its history in its streets and stones. ("The past is not dead," Wilson says, quoting Faulkner. "It's not even past.") For all its flaws, Midnight in Paris is steeped in romance that, though simple, is easy to get swept up in. Grade: B+

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