I’ve always said that Woody Allen on a bad day is better than everybody else on Sunday. Since he makes more movies than anyone else—and turns them out faster than procreating gerbils—this adage has become a reality. But Allen is an artist brimming with vitality and imagination, always ready to explore new ideas. When they work, the screen lights up like a Yuletide tree in Rockefeller Center, and Midnight in Paris works in spades—diamonds, clubs and hearts, too. It’s Woody’s best movie in years, and 100 minutes of total enchantment.
The most fabulous cinematography since Vincente Minnelli’s An American in Paris makes the City of Light look clean, scrubbed and beautiful in this celebration of all things French, without the attitude. Dress it in whimsy and romance, and Allen’s valentine to the city he loves almost as much as New York comes to life in three separate decades, giving us all the Paris of our dreams. In the process of time travel, Woody almost manages to solve the mystery of snaggle-toothed, hook-nosed Owen Wilson, a terrible actor with an obnoxious voice who is absolutely perfect as a nerdy, wide-eyed Hollywood hack named Gil who is transported by the magic of the city of his dreams into finding his inner adult.
Gil has come to Paris with his superficial bottle-blond, mannied and peddied Beverly Hills fiancée Inez (Rachel McAdams) and her rich, uptight, right-wing parents on one of her father’s business trips. While they shop for bargains, Gil, dazzled by everything from the Eiffel Tower at night to Left Bank brasseries glistening in the rain, fantasizes about what this haven for American expatriates must have been like in earlier times, before global warming, suicide bombers and traffic jams. He’s smart and successful, but he never had the courage to live in a garret while writing the great American novel like his literary idols of the 1920s.
After Inez runs into an old friend (a pompous know-it-all amusingly played by Michael Sheen) who corrects the tour guide at Versailles, and her parents attend a wine tasting and insist California grapes are better, disgusted Gil wanders off on his own. On the stroke of midnight chimes from Notre Dame cathedral (could it be Quasimodo himself pulling the rope in the bell tower?) a classic Peugeot pulls up, like the pumpkin coach from Cinderella’s ball, and a group of revelers in Roaring ’20s costumes offer Gil a ride, with a feisty flapper named Zelda Fitzgerald (the delicious Allison Pill) pouring champagne and yelling “C’mon, we’re going to a party for Jean Cocteau.” Gil goes along for the ride, but once inside the car, he falls down the rabbit hole like Alice in Wonderland into another world, populated by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Cole Porter and Ernest Hemingway. Even the dead icons are believable.
Gil takes all of this preposterous fiction as seriously as a kid with a Buck Rogers moon ring searching the sky for a spaceship. He’s been working on a novel for years about a man who works in a nostalgia shop. But when Hemingway offers to show it to his friend Gertrude Stein, Gil is so overwhelmed he forgets to set a time and place. Rushing back to the place where he met his new friends, the bar has disappeared, replaced by a modern-day laundromat.
The next day’s capricious delirium wreaks havoc on his relationship with the pragmatic Inez, but when the clock strikes midnight again, “Papa” Hemingway appears again. A stoned Alice B. Toklas opens the door and in the parlor of their literary salon, Stein (played with butch relish by Kathy Bates) introduces Gil to Dalí, Buñuel, TS Eliot, and an endless parade of historic legends. The culture clashes between eras provide some amusing bits only the fertile brain of Allen could conjure. Gil wants to escape 2010 and stay in the 1920s. He falls in love with the beautiful Adriana (Marion Cotillard), mistress and muse of Modigliani, Braque and Picasso, who confesses her own personal favorite period in Paris is la belle époque.
Another chorus of midnight bells and they are dancing in gold-leaf splendor and fin de siècle costumes and running into Toulouse-Lautrec at the Moulin Rouge. “A man in love with two women from different eras … I see a film!” cries Luis Buñuel while Salvador Dalí (Adrien Brody makes a harrowing lookalike) gets it all down on a tablecloth.
Quixotic and eccentric, to be sure, but Allen is on to something here. Anyone who has read about Paris through the decades nurtures dreams of what the past was like. But Allen’s Paris of yesterday has a message: While the past may not be perfect (“They don’t even have Zithromax!” grouses Gil) there’s nothing wrong with creating your own past as you go along.
Wilson’s bumbling mediocrity and flat, parboiled Texas accent make a perfect alter ego for the director himself. Even Carla Bruni, the first lady of France, excels in a flavorful cameo as a museum tour guide. In a film so ripe with temptations for exaggeration and satirical overacting, nobody is anything less than natural, unpretentious and funny as hell. Photographed by Iranian-born Darius Khondji, the film is so breathtaking that it’s worth a ticket for the cinematography alone. See it, and you’ll want to book a weekend in Paris with your next tax refund.