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Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Midnight in Paris

Despite not being a Woody Allen fan, I went to see Midnight in Paris at the local art house cinema this weekend. It was enjoyable, mostly for its ingenious concept.

Owen Wilson, as a Hollywood writer, wants to give up his lucrative screenwriting career in order to pursue his dream of being a novelist. He visits Paris with his fiancee and her parents; he is in love with the city while they are not. He ends up wandering off by himself; every night at midnight he goes through a time warp and ends up in 1920's Paris, the period he is most nostalgic for, where he gets to meet the biggest literary and artistic luminaries of the era.

Most of these are given relatively brief cameo parts. F. Scott Fitzgerald is attractive, and Zelda is unstable. We get a glimpse of Cole Porter, singing at the piano. A benevolent Gertrude Stein reads Owens' book for him, then reads his rewrite. (Would Stein really have gone to that trouble for a stranger?) Picasso wanders in and out of a few scenes, but is less forceful as we might have imagined.

Most of the famous names are played as brief self-parodies; Allen, in his rush to introduce them all, didn't have time to introduce any subtlety -- or surprise -- into their characters. After awhile it feels like just a lot of name dropping. 

The one luminary who is savaged is Ernest Hemingway, who is portrayed as a graceless, repetitive, pretentious boor. My first thought was, maybe Allen was forced to read Hemingway's books for school the way I was. But when I got home and looked up Hemingway, I was reminded that The Sun Also Rises was considered anti-Semitic. Mystery solved.

The 20's are shown as a never-ending party. (When did these people ever work? It takes discipline to be a writer or painter.)

The movie makes some good points about the nature of nostalgia. There is a cute time warp-within-a-time warp scene where Wilson and his main romantic interest in the 1920's, a Picasso mistress played by the very appealing Marion Cotillard, are transported back to the 1890's, where they meet Toulouse-Lautrec and Gaugin. This mistress, the only character from the 20's who is actually developed, worships La Belle Epoque the same way Wilson worships the 1920's. Cotillard decides to stay in the 1890's, forcing Wilson to confront the folly of his own nostalgia.

The acting was generally good. Rachel McAdams, who played Wilson's fiance, shows once again that the role she plays best is Bitch. (McAdams' original breakthrough role was as one of the title Mean Girls in 2004.) Her acting here is very reminiscent of Parker Posey as Tom Hanks' fiancee in You've Got Mail

Owen Wilson plays his role the only way he ever plays it, as himself. He always comes across decent, reasonable, and sensitive. His whiny voice augments the impression of a somewhat feckless man of adequate but not excessive masculinity -- the measure of that being that he can't even dominate his own hair. (He always seems to be drowning in all those blond locks.) Wilson gets a lot of roles as the everyman the audience is supposed to identify with: he is the new Tom Hanks. But that's exactly what's called for here.

And how sly was it for Allen to give a role to Carla Bruni, wife of French President Nicolas Sarkozy? You think Allen had any trouble getting clearance to shoot the movie wherever and whenever he wanted after that?

Allen the filmmaker may be cynical, but the movie he created is actually sweetly nostalgic, romantic, and self-aware. Invoking all of those famous geniuses didn't quite make the movie itself a work of genius, but it is still worth seeing.


Jonathan Leaf said...

There's no mystery here. Hemingway was a graceless, repetitive, pretentious boor. Haven't you ever read Lillian Ross's famous profile of him? Or any of the awful novels he wrote from the late 1930's onwards? He was a drunk and a phony - and it's obvious in nearly all of his later work.

John Craig said...

Hemingway was one of those authors I was forced to read in high school, and never read again, as a result. So I'm not familiar with most of his books. But the same could probably be said of a lot of the characters in the movie. As far as personal behavior, Picasso was a complete boor, and mistreated every single woman in his life, according to almost everybody who knew him, and Dali was another pretentious phony. Yet they weren't savaged nearly as badly by Allen. Why?

Jonathan Leaf said...

Dali was mocked. And maybe (doubtless?) Hemingway was easier to parody.

John Craig said...

Dali was mocked relatively gently. And Picasso was pretty much left unharmed. Hemingway was given a much more prominent role in the movie; he had to have been in at least six or seven scenes, and he was made to look like an ass in every single one. No comparison.