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Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris is a perfectly charming little film with a cleverly incorporated time-traveling conceit. The only problem the film has is that it has been grossly and and ubiquitously over-rated in the press, often referred to as Allen’s best film in over ten years. See here, here, here, and here. If you’re a Woody Allen fan you should for sure see this film, but let me recalibrate your expectations a little first.
Owen Wilson plays the Allen role that’s, of course, at the center of the movie. He’s great — neither over the top nor overly understated. But most of the other characters are more plot devices than attempts to create real people. His fiancee, played by Rachel McAdams, starts out loving but descends rapidly into a monolithic source of irritation for both Wilson’s character Gil and the audience. Another character, meant to be an insufferable pedant, is given absolutely no redeeming qualities, and occupies the screen as a sort of boorish source of evil.
And there is time traveling! Well, sort of. Gil, Wilson’s character, goes wandering in Paris at night, and sort of suddenly finds himself in the Paris of 1920s. It’s cleverly done in the sense that there’s no time machine or anything; he’s suddenly just sort of there. Maybe it’s magic, maybe it’s all a dream: the movie doesn’t even ask you to speculate. And it’s a fine idea. The problem is that within a couple of evenings, Gil meets every famous American associated with 20s Paris. Here’s a party with F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, with Cole Porter playing the piano. Then he wanders into an empty bar and runs into Ernest Hemingway. And here’s where the movie goes off the rails a little: as soon as Gil sits down, Hemingway starts going on about shooting a tiger that’s charging at you, and how the secret to good writing is being honest, and war. It’s as though the idea of not making him too much of a caricature never even crossed Allen’s mind.
Later on we meet Gertrude Stein, Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dali, Man Ray, and lots of others. It’d be like going to New York in the early 80s and partying all night with the New York Dolls, wandering through the park with Patty Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe, having lunch with a young Donald Trump, and bumping into Grandmaster Flash in the Bronx. (Actually, I’d go see that movie.)
The scene with Dali is particularly gratuitous. Played eye-rollingly “surreal”-with-quotes by Adrien Brody, Dali waves Gil over to his cafe table and proceeds to rant about “seeing a rhinoceros” for a bit. As the scene ends, he quickly introduces Man Ray and Luis Buñuel, as though Allen were trying to fill some sort of fake celebrity quota.
So why should you see this movie? Well, when it’s not being overdone, the historical Paris bit is done exceptionally well, and it’s cleverly folded into a pretty good story. You’ll find at least some of the historical characters charming (I liked the Fitzgeralds and Gertrude stein, who is fabulously played by Kathy Bates). And Owen Wilson really holds the whole thing together. Now that your expectations have been adjusted, you just might be pleasantly surprised by how good it is.