Ever since the angst-riddled auteur began his slow but unavoidable downward spiral in the 1990's, with each successive picture that Woody Allen now puts out, those of us who once celebrated the release of one of the director's new films hope beyond hope that we can exclaim with a certain amount of empathetic cinematic pride that this is the movie that reaffirms Allen as the great auteur he had once been. We have managed, albeit on just a superficial level, to boast such boasts only on a couple of occasions as of late. But even with Match Point and Vicky Cristina Barcelona, for as good as they were - and they are both quite good - they were still not that classic Woody that we all so desired them to be.
As good as they were, they were not the Woody of Annie Hall and Manhattan, Purple Rose of Cairo and Hannah & Her Sisters, Radio Days and Crimes and Misdemeanors. Granted, they were heads and shoulders above other recent Woody's (from the mediocrity of You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger and Melinda and Melinda to the wishy-washiness of Whatever Works to the downright awfulness of Scoop and The Curse of the Jade Scorpion) but they were still not Woody doing what Woody does best. What we get with Midnight in Paris, the auteur's 42nd film, is about as close to that aforementioned oh so desirable classic Woody as we are bound to get these days. Perhaps not quite up to par with those films of Woody's hey day, but as close as we have gotten since that very hey day and the first film I would call a true Woody Allen film (at least the Woody Allen this critic grew up with) since perhaps Everyone Says I Love You waaay back in 1996.
Midnight in Paris is the story of Gil Pender, played with suitable charm by Owen Wilson, a successful Hollywood screenwriter trying to change his life by writing something of more substance. In Paris with his fiancée (an annoyingly bourgeois Rachel McAdams), a woman who could not be more wrong for the romantic dreamer Gil, and competing with a self-righteous pedantic intellectual played by Michael Sheen (the kind of guy who corrects tour guides), Gil fantasizes about living in Paris in the 1920's and being able to walk down any cobbled rue and run into the likes of Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Gertrud Stein. Playing as a romantic fantasy, Allen uses the ideas of magic and dreams that he has used in many past films like A Midsummer's Night Sex Comedy, The Purple Rose of Cairo, Deconstructing Harry, The Curse of the Jade Scorpion and Scoop, as well as his part of the triptych New York Stories - a recurring theme that was also a favourite of Allen's cinematic idol, Ingmar Bergman.
Perhaps Allen isn't, as they say, reinventing the wheel so much as restyling past ideas, but even going down these roads that seem so familiar, even when decorated with illusion, we are treated to a most enjoyable work of romantic fantasy. Think The Purple Rose of Cairo blended with Everyone Says I Love You and you may begin to get just what you will get with Midnight in Paris. Whether we are treading on familiar waters or not, we quite enjoy where these waters happen to be taking us. Opening with a musical montage of the City of Lights that may remind some of the opening of Manhattan (though on a much more superficial level - Allen's 1979 black and white homage to his hometown is a love story to a beloved city, here it is mere introduction) this movie is less about what Paris is or what Paris looks like (we are only shown the most touristy of areas) and more about how a place and a time make you feel and how another place in another time may make you feel even better. This is where we get into the realms of fantasy that Allen enjoys so much and thus into the story of Gil and his dreams of another time. It is in these dreams that Gil will find his ideal place - the place that he cannot find in his real world.
Although the above summation could be construed as rather deep, it is trifle that seems to be the critical buzzword when describing Midnight in Paris (no less than a dozen reviews use just that word) and I suppose their is some truth in such a descriptive, but trifling or not, repeating past themes and ideas or not, playing upon the director's past or not, the fact that this is the most classically entertaining Woody Allen film in nearly two decades should not be forgotten. With a cast that includes (aside from the aforementioned) Kathy Bates, Mimi Kennedy, Tom Hiddleston, Curt Fuller, Carla Bruni (sister to actress/director Valeria Bruni Tedeschi as well as the current first lady of France) and the gorgeous Marion Cotillard as Gil's wouldbe dream girl come true, Midnight in Paris is full of the entertaining moments one would expect out of the Woody Allen of thirty years ago. Among many surprises in the film, there is a surprise cameo (of whom I will not say) that is an especially comic highlight in a movie already filled with plenty of comic highlights to go around. True, I cannot truly call this the Woody Allen of Annie Hall (that Woody Allen probably no longer exists) but I can call it the most entertaining romantic comedy in many a year and the auteur's best work in even longer. [06/01/11]