Friday, June 3, 2011

Film review: Allen's 'Midnight in Paris' hints at return to mastery

Owen Wilson and Rachel McAdams in Midnight in Paris.

By Hap Erstein

Neil Simon,‭ ‬in his heyday,‭ ‬used to churn out a Broadway play every season,‭ ‬whether he really had a worthy idea for a play or not.‭

The same could be said of Woody Allen over the past decade‭ ‬--‭ ‬from‭ ‬2000‭’‬s‭ ‬Small Time Crooks to last year’s‭ ‬You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger‭ ‬--‭ ‬he has written and directed a film each year,‭ ‬but they have largely been inconsequential trifles that feel tossed off.‭

Still,‭ ‬at‭ ‬75,‭ ‬he remains a workaholic with a film in production or pre-production at all times.‭ ‬And his fans‭ ‬--‭ ‬a group to which I consider myself a charter member‭ ‬--‭ ‬live in the hope that he still has a‭ ‬Crimes and Misdemeanors or a‭ ‬Hannah and Her Sisters or even a‭ ‬Purple Rose of Cairo in him.‭ ‬Purple Rose particularly comes to mind,‭ ‬because that melodramatic comedy about the urge to leave one’s world behind for a chance at happiness in an alternate universe is essentially the same theme as in his latest release,‭ ‬Midnight in Paris,‭ ‬the Woodman’s most satisfying film in the past ten years.

Viewers of Allen’s films‭ ‬--‭ ‬or maybe it is just us critics‭ ‬--‭ ‬are always in search of autobiographical clues in even his more lightweight screenplays.‭ ‬So when we first meet Gil,‭ ‬a successful Hollywood writer who regrets not having penned a novel of substance,‭ ‬our antennae go up.‭

Curiously,‭ ‬since it has long been established that Allen can attract any actors he wants,‭ ‬he cast Owen Wilson to play his latest alter ego.‭ ‬And while he is not much of an actor,‭ ‬the fuzzy-headed aging surfer type does a very creditable job,‭ ‬adopting the unmistakable halting cadences that have been Allen’s signature since his stand-up comedy days in the‭ ‬1960s.

Anyway,‭ ‬Gil is on vacation in Paris with his insufferably spoiled fiancee Inez‭ (‬Rachel McAdams‭) ‬--‭ ‬yes,‭ ‬literature majors,‭ ‬score a point if you recall that Inez is a character in Jean-Paul Sartre’s‭ ‬“hell is other people‭” ‬classic,‭ ‬No Exit.‭ ‬Gil is the sort of person who,‭ ‬feeling unsatisfied by his present life,‭ ‬yearns for the romance of a past era.‭ ‬And sure enough,‭ ‬while wandering the streets of Paris one night alone,‭ ‬a distant bell chimes midnight and a taxicab out of the‭ ‬1920s turns the corner and stops at the curb in front of him.

Inside the cab are those celebrated denizens of the Jazz Age,‭ ‬Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald,‭ ‬who implore Gil to join them as they go party-hopping.‭ ‬They introduce him to a somber Ernest Hemingway‭ ‬--‭ ‬Gil’s literary idol‭ ‬--‭ ‬who refuses Gil’s request to read and comment on his manuscript,‭ ‬but Papa does pass the tome on to Gertrude Stein‭ (‬Kathy Bates‭) ‬who has encouraging words for Gil.

When he tells Inez of his encounters,‭ ‬she is understandably dismissive,‭ ‬but he seeks out the cab the next night and returns to the‭ ’‬20s,‭ ‬where he falls for Picasso’s mistress of the moment,‭ ‬the very French Adriana‭ (‬Marion Cotillard‭)‬,‭ ‬former lover of Braque and Modigliani.

Allen has a great deal of fun with these icons of the arts,‭ ‬conjuring up Man Ray,‭ ‬Luis Bunuel,‭ ‬T.S.‭ ‬Eliot and Dali‭ (‬Adrien Brody‭) ‬among others.‭ ‬As seen through Gil’s imagination,‭ ‬their speech patterns often reflect their work,‭ ‬as Hemingway talks in clipped,‭ ‬intense sentences and Dali talks with a surreal theatricality.

But beyond the fun,‭ ‬Midnight in Paris has a point to make about yearning for past,‭ ‬a message which elevates the film from boulevard comedy to something worth pondering and savoring.‭ ‬It is Allen’s notion that nostalgia is born of a dissatisfaction for life,‭ ‬a need to reach for something better.‭ ‬In the same way that Gil idealizes the‭ ’‬20s,‭ ‬Adriana thinks that the‭ “‬golden age‭’ ‬must be the Belle Epoque of the‭ ‬1890s.‭ ‬And perhaps,‭ ‬Gil suggests,‭ ‬Degas and Toulouse-Lautrec regret not living in the Renaissance.

Like the best of Allen’s work,‭ ‬there is a dark underside to the comedy,‭ ‬though‭ ‬Midnight in Paris is so deft and airy,‭ ‬one can easily enjoy it without dealing with its pessimistic streak.‭ ‬Maybe it is just wishful thinking,‭ ‬but there are signs here that Allen has found his footing again.‭ ‬And who knows‭ ‬--‭ ‬maybe his golden age is still ahead of him.‭

MIDNIGHT IN PARIS.‭ ‬Director:‭ ‬Woody Allen‭; ‬Starring:‭ ‬Owen Wilson,‭ ‬Rachel McAdams,‭ ‬Marion Cotillard,‭ ‬Kurt Fuller,‭ ‬Adrien Brody,‭ ‬Kathy Bates.‭ ‬Distributor:‭ ‬Sony Pictures‭; ‬Rating:‭ ‬PG-13.‭ ‬Opening this weekend at area theaters.

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