Being as inconsistent as he is prolific, it would be fair to say that Woody Allen’s late-day career has been hot-and-cold at best; for every success – most recently the likes of Match Point and Vicky Cristina Barcelona – there is something that didn’t quite work – Cassandra’s Dream or Scoop – and even in his better recent films, there is a bitter taste of misanthropy which, while at one time fresh and diverting, has long become tiresome and trite. Allen’s latest, Midnight in Paris, is a return to a more optimistic past – literally and figuretively – complimenting a charming premise with sweet characters and a winningly old-fashioned feel.
While the grumpy old men get-together that saw Allen pair with Larry David for Whatever Works certainly had its moments, Allen has smartly – and indeed, surprisingly – tended towards more mainstream comic talent for his latest excursion, calling upon the underrated Owen Wilson to play his protagonist, an idealistic Hollywood writer who, upon visiting Paris and falling in love with it, finds that his fiancée, Inez (Rachel McAdams), might not be the one for him. Clever marketing has veiled the film’s chief conceit – that it has some unexpected supernatural elements – but the cat was out of the bag approximately ten seconds after its first public screening at the Cannes Film Festival in May, and so it’ll surprise few who go and see it by now.
The film excels on its own dramatic merits, observing Wilson’s Gil trying to overcome writer’s block while wafting away the romantic advances towards his fiancée of her pretentious friend, Paul (Michael Sheen), but the film truly enters its own once things begin to get a little strange. Gil winds up fortunate enough to be able to discuss his existential crisis with historical figures from the early 20th century, including F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway and Salvador Dali, and though the potential obscurity of some of the figures to some audiences might hurt the film’s general accessibility despite it starring Wilson and McAdams, it will appeal fitfully to the initiated core of Allen’s fanbase. Especially diverting is Adrien Brody, bearing a remarkable resemblance to Dali in a brief cameo, and also Marion Cotillard as Adriana, Picasso’s alluring mistress whom Gil takes quite a shine to.
Still, once the time travel gimmick has settled in the viewer’s mind, it is ultimately Allen’s penchant for authentically drawn characters which sees the film out; quaint humour is derived from Inez becoming suspicious of where Gil spends his nights, resulting in a private detective being hired to tail him, who is then unceremoniously drawn into Gil’s discovery also. Allen also manages to draw his focus upon an important and heartfelt lesson about rose-tinted nostalgia and looking to the past, that one must appreciate the present no matter how inferior it may seem, for in actual fact, it most probably is not. That Allen manages to realise this message – little new though it is – and entangle it with a compelling romantic narrative is all the proof needed that this is a director well and truly returning to form.
Who would have thought it would take Owen Wilson of all actors to help reignite Allen’s quirky romantic spark? His everyman quality ensures we never feel too alienated or distanced from what for many, including Allen’s fans, might seem to be unfamilar water. Slipping into the role of Allen’s perennial neurotic middle-classer with surprising ease, Wilson’s laid-back charm accentuates the witty script to create an intriguing situation which is at once clever and heartful. Michael Sheen is also wonderfully annoying as the pompous windbag getting in Gil’s way, and Allen’s peculiar stunt casting of Carla Bruni as a museum tour guide comes off surprisingly well and is not at all obtrusive like you might expect.
Countless other directors would have bungled this material and either overemphasised the supernatural elements through strained explanation, or simply failed to reconcile the romantic plot without resorting to saccharine sentiment. In the face of a decade of cynical misanthropy, the optimistic and effervescent Midnight in Paris is Allen’s most purely enjoyable work in years.
Midnight in Paris is released in the UK on Friday.
Matt Holmes reviewed the film in Cannes that you can also read HERE.