There is a moment in the middle of Midnight in Paris where Gil Penders, the films’ leading man and a hopeless romantic, muses that no work of art can equal the beauty of a great city. Just as Isaac felt about New York in Manhattan, or Vicki and Cristina felt about the Spanish capital in Vicki, Cristina, Barcelona, Gil is enamoured with the great French city from whence this film takes its name. He loves the boulevards and the cobbled alleyways, the quaint bookstores and the charming cafes. And as a struggling writer, he loves the romanticism and imagination that they inspire. Filled with light-hearted fancy and a dazzling cast, Woody Allen’s latest film is a magical stroll through a magnificent city; a city that inspired that artists who, in turn, inspired him.
Even when the writer/director/actor doesn’t play the part personally, most protagonists in Allen’s films are inevitably thinly veiled versions of Allen himself. In the case of Midnight in Paris, the actor filling his shoes is the affable Owen Wilson (Hall Pass), while the character he plays is a successful screenwriter disillusioned with Hollywood and his own mediocre output. He is the kind of man who likes old books, records and taking long walks in the rain; who dreams of giving up his material possessions and moving to Paris to finish his novel — an aspiration that does not sit well with his materialistic fiancé Inez (Rachel McAdams; Morning Glory).
While on vacation in Paris with his unbearable wife-to-be and her equally unbearable parents (Kurt Fuller; Ray and Mimi Kennedy; In The Loop), Gil finds himself wandering the streets of the city at night, and is soon inexplicably transported back in time to the height of the swinging twenties. There, he encounters all of his artistic and literary heroes, including a sociable F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald (Tom Hiddleston; Thor and Alison Pill; Scott Pilgrim), a straight-talking Ernest Hemingway (Corey Stoll; Salt), a paranoid Picasso (Marcial Di Fonzo Bo; Polisse) and a very goofy Salvador Dali (a hilarious cameo by Adrien Brody; Predators). Not only do these historical figures welcome Gil into their inner circle and encourage his writing, but they also introduce him to Adriana (Marion Cotillard; Inception), an alluring French woman with whom Gil soon becomes smitten.
Certainly one of Allen’s lighter works, there is a wonderful wit and whimsy to Midnight in Paris that whisks you off your feet, rarely inspiring booming guffaws, but provoking satisfied smiles that never leaves your face. The picture begins with a montage of gorgeous Parisian locales accompanied by the dreamy tunes of Sidney Bechet’s “Si tu vois ma mere”, and from that moment on it is impossible not to fall in love. From there Allen steals us away into the night, transporting us to a world full of colour, laughter and romance. His classical shooting style, warm lighting, rich costuming and detailed production design all contribute to a wonderful nostalgic feeling that we share with Gil, intoxicated and amazed by the magic of the city around us.
Wilson’s performance here shows more shades of subtlety than we are used to from the Hollywood star, as he plays Gil with just the right combination of befuddlement, passion and down-to-earth likability. Surround him are a series of supporting players that never cease to impress; Rachel McAdams nails the dismissive nature of the spoiled American housewife (a Woody Allen staple), while Michael Sheen (Tron: Legacy) is perfect as Paul, Inez’s former lover and a cringe-worthy pseudo-intellectual who takes great pleasure in appearing the expert on every element of French culture.
There is a great deal of affection in every aspect of this film. Allen loves this city and these artists. So does Gil. And inevitably, so do we. Best of all, although the script drops enough names to send even the most learned intellectual scrambling for the encyclopaedia, Gil’s unabashed and genuine enthusiasm for it all – especially when contrasted with Paul’s intolerable pompousness – ensures that you never feel excluded or inferior for not catching all the names. Funny, clever and full of love, you don’t need a Fine Arts degree to appreciate this film. Although speaking as someone who had to look up a few of the characters after he got home, it certainly wouldn’t hurt.