The cliché when reviewing a Woody Allen film is to play the “Spot the Woody” game. Since Allen stopped actually appearing in his own films it has become de rigueur to speculate on which role Woody would have played. It’s a bit of a tired game, but in his new film, “Midnight in Paris,” (which opened the most recent Cannes Film Festival) Owen Wilson is clearly playing the part. He’s a nostalgic Hollywood screenwriter who yearns to be taken seriously as an author. It’s Woody alright, despite Wilson’s California beach bum style.
In a story that harkens back to Allen’s older magic realism films like “Purple Rose of Cairo,” Gil Pender (Wilson), an American on vacation in France, finds himself transported back to 1920s Paris. For a man with “golden Age” fantasies it’s a dream come true. He meets F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald (Tom Hiddleston, last seen as Loki from “Thor” and Alison Pill), hangs out with surrealists, sees Cole Porter sing at a party, drinks with Hemmingway and tries to steal Picasso’s girl Adriana (Marion Cotillard). Bringing him back to reality is his irritating present day fiancée Inez (Rachel McAdams) and her obnoxious parents.
It must first be said that “Midnight in Paris” is worth the price of admissions for the lovely shots of the fetching Marion Cotillard strolling the streets of Paris in a flapper dress. It’s also worth it to see Woody do for 1920s Paris what he did for 1970s Manhattan. He has one character say, “that Paris exists and anyone would choose to live anywhere else is a mystery to me,” and after seeing the film it’s hard not to agree. Allen’s cities are often as much a character as any of the actors and Paris is no exception. Now if he’d only shoot in Toronto. It might help tourism.
“Midnight in Paris” is a fantasy, but there is a point. Every generation looks back at the past with envy, Gil comes to realize that there really never was a “golden age” and that top be truly happy he must live in the present. That resolution is a bit of a revelation coming from Woody Allen, a man whose films seem to be from a different age but the skill he brings to this film proves he’s still a vital interesting filmmaker and not a relic from a past age.