Thursday, June 2, 2011

The Big Review: Midnight in Paris

I love Woody Allen, but good god was this lousy. Kind of intrigued as to why so many people are digging this movie. Could this be my "Up in the Air" or "Benjamin Button" of 2011, a flick everyone loves but I despise? Stay tuned.

Best part of the movie, seriously: Carla Bruni. Usually presidential wives look like dowagers from a Three Stooges skit. Here and Michele Obama are starting a delightful new trend: First ladies you want to see in their underpants! You can bet "Maxim" is already on it.

This review originally appeared in the June issue of "ICON" and is reprinted with permission. (Thanks, Trina.)


Every five or six years, Woody Allen makes a wonderful film that reaffirms my admiration for him. In between those creative peaks lie efforts ranging from mildly entertaining to exasperating. Allen's latest, Midnight in Paris, resides in the valley. But it's a troubling film, because the writer/director displays a fatigue that requires more than the anticipated turnaround.

Not surprisingly, the setting is Paris, where Gil (Owen Wilson) and Inez (Rachel McAdams) have tagged along with her wealthy parents (Kurt Fuller and Mimi Kennedy) for a lavish sojourn. Inez longs to partake in Paris's glittery attractions. Gil, a successful but fatigued screenwriter working on a serious novel, is tickled by the city's cultural past. He's just dying to walk the streets in the rain.

Inez, who can barely tolerate her fiancé's flighty, romantic nature, pals around with her overbearingly academic friend, Paul (a criminally underused Michael Sheen). One night, frustrated and uninterested in after-dinner activities, Gil walks back to his hotel. Hopelessly lost, he sits down to gather his thoughts. The clock strikes midnight. An old timey car appears, Gil enters, and he is mysteriously chauffeured to the Paris of his dreams, a 1920s bohemian paradise featuring Salvador Dali (Adrien Brody, talking a lot about rhinos), F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald (Tom Hiddleston and Alison Pill), Ernest Hemingway (Corey Stoll), and all his other artistic heroes.

Even better, Gil, an unapologetic admirer, is their equal. And he gets to return to this legendary coterie night after night. In between getting writing advice from Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates) and giving Luis Buñuel (Adrien de Van) movie ideas, the young writer falls in love with Adriana (Marion Cotillard), the resident "art groupie." Even her dalliances with Hemingway and Picasso (Marcial Di Fonzo Bo) can't separate these old souls, though their love of the past might. Despite the decades-crossed romance, Allen keeps the proceedings simple: Gil heads to his designated spot each night, waits for his space-time continuum carpool, lives it up Jazz Age style, and heads back to present day. It's a pretty stagnant arrangement, which paints the time travel aspect as a cheap narrative gimmick to enhance a pallid romantic comedy with a weak, obvious moral. The past, it turns out, isn't necessarily better.

Midnight in Paris is rife with useless, condescending enhancements. Introducing cultural icons in scene after scene doesn't add mystique; it makes Allen look like a hypocritical know-it-all. (If anyone is in love with the past, it's Allen, who in his films refuses to acknowledge any musical, literary, or comedic movement developed after 1945.) Giving Paris a cinematic ass kissing—including an interminable opening sequence of the city's street life—doesn't infuse the story with urban poetry; it shows artistic desperation, a hope that scenery will do the work of a functional script and good acting.

Allen deflates his promising material by choosing the easy way out. No one in the past questions Gil's futuristic wardrobe. Inez's growing rapport with Paul is handled via cutting remarks and summaries, not with scenes between the two of them. Gil stealing Inez's earrings to give to Adriana could have been a madcap comic moment. Instead, it becomes a strained commentary on how rich folks don't trust the help. Allen's refusal to play with the story's time travel aspects, save for one scene near the end, is baffling. Wouldn't it have been fun to have Adriana land in 2010 while a surprised Gil has to cover her tracks? How would she react to a world ruled by Thomas Kinkade and John Grisham, where Starbucks is the cultural hotspot?

Characters we like don't stick around for long. Pill is a delight as Zelda Fitzgerald – you want Allen to mix her up in Gil's double life – but she's part of the movie's interminable parade of literary celebrities and is soon gone. Before he's banished to the script's margins, Paul is positioned as a snobby foil for Gil, except Allen doesn't give the latter enough intellectual ferocity to fight back. Some characters we can't wait to never see again, especially Inez, whom McAdams transforms into a pampered, shrill screaming machine. Granted, we need a reason for Gil's nocturnal strolls but McAdams is downright vituperative, like she's filming the sequel to Mean Girls. Inez could have been sweetly doubting or lovably frustrated, a straight woman thrown by her fiancé's loopy demeanor. McAdams's work here is so abrasive and isolating that I'm forgetting why I liked her in the first place.

Allen never seems fully invested in anything—the storyline, the characters, the jokes. At least with duds such as Melinda and Melinda and Hollywood Ending there was a sense of creative certainty. Like Gil, Allen is adrift in Midnight in Paris. At age 75, the legendary filmmaker doesn't have much time left to get everyone—including me—to love him again. [PG-13]

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