Summer Movie Fix: "Midnight in Paris"
When I was in my mid-twenties -- back before the era of multiplex theaters where the only fare often seems to be loud car-chase flicks, "bromance" road-trip comedies and superheroes engaging in computer-generated adventures in 3-D -- I used to enjoy spending a hot summer evening at the movies. The city where I lived had this wonderful old crumbling art/revival house, where $2 got you a well-worn, creaky seat in the balcony and a chance to see a different foreign film or Hollywood classic. One evening, it was Jeanne Moreau's too-clever plot to kill her husband in Ascenseur pour l'échafaud, Louis Malle's 1958 directorial debut. The next, it might be the playful repartee and physical grace of Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron in the 1951 musical An American in Paris.
Come to think of it, a lot of those movies took place in the City of Light. Maybe that's one of the reasons why I love director Woody Allen's new movie, Midnight in Paris, so much. But there are plenty of other reasons. Foremost among them is that Allen has given us the sort of stylish,deftly executed, wickedly funny and yet thought-provoking film that a middle-aged adult can enjoy. And they are. I'm harboring the hope that the early box-office success of Midnight in Paris, along with that of another film that I'm looking forward to seeing, director Mike Mills' Beginners, may even launch a new trend toward summer comedies aimed at sophisticated boomers and pre-boomers.
At 75, Allen has been making movies for close to a half-century, and frankly, I haven't been following his recent efforts with the enthusiasm that I had back in the mid-1970s for the inventive sci-fi slapstick and social satire of Sleeper, and for the way that Annie Hall mixed painfully amusing jokes with poignant insights to explore the arc of a failed romance. But one thing I respect about him is that he's continued to hone his craft over the years and has stayed focused on his own distinctive artistic vision. In an era of "Director's Cut" DVDs and movies shaped by cross-marketing opportunities and the fickle tastes of focus groups, Allen is an anachronism, seemingly oblivious to today's prevailing wisdom about making hit movies. Instead, he remains influenced by an earlier generation of humorists such as S.J. Perelman and James Thurber, and by the urbane, elegant relationship-driven comedies that German-American director Ernst Lubitsch made between the late 1920s and mid-1940s. As a writer and director, he still likes to unfurl his narrative at the deliberate, unhurried pace imbued with the intricacies of a guitar solo by Django Reinhardt, the early 20th century jazz pioneer.
It's easy to dismiss Allen as a nostalgic dreamer living in the past, which makes Midnight in Paris all the more delicious, because on one level, it's really a meditation on the joys and bittersweet limits of being fixated on the past. The protagonist, Gil Pender (portrayed by Owen Wilson, who deftly channels a younger Allen's own neurotic energy and comic timing) is a successful but unsatisfied Hollywood screenwriter who dreams of becoming a novelist like his heroes of the past, Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald. When Gil and his fiancee, Inez (Rachel McAdams), tag along with her parents on a trip to Paris, Gil sees it as a chance to immerse himself in the city that was such an inspiration to his heroes' generation in the 1920s. But materialistic, status-conscious Rachel and her folks are more interested in shopping for costly, pretentious furniture than they are in absorbing the artistic ambiance around them. And Rachel, even as she demeans Gil's literary dreams, swoons over her professor friend Paul (Michael Sheen), a pompous pseudo-intellectual who is a self-ordained expert on everything from art history to French wines.
Frustrated and forlorn, Gil takes to roaming the Parisian streets late at night. On one of these walks, he's suddenly accosted by an antique automobile filled with champagne-gulping revelers clad in double-breasted suits and flapper dresses who cajole him into accompanying them to what they promise will be a great party. In the process, through some unexplained feat of magic, Gil's new friends take him back to the 1920s, where he is startled to meet meet Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Pablo Picasso, Cole Porter, T.S. Eliot, and scores of other Jazz Age luminaries. They accept Gil into their social circle -- Stein even agrees to read and critique his unfinished novel -- and he becomes enamored of Picasso's arm candy, an aspiring fashion designer named Adriana (apparently, a fictional composite of the artists' various mistresses, portrayed by French actress and singer Marion Cotillard).
Gil, of course, is the only one who experiences this time-warp experience, and he finds himself increasingly torn between the nostalgic fantasy of a purer, nobler, more daring past era and a reality that promises to provide him safe, comfortable opulence in exchange for giving up his ambitions. I won't ruin the surprise revealing any more of the plot, but I will tell you that it takes a challenging, thought-provoking turn near the end.
Allen made his early reputation in part through his clever parodies of great artists that he admired -- from Leo Tolstoy to Ingmar Bergman -- and still has that knack for humorously humanizing the giants of the past. One of my favorite moments in the movie is Gil's chance encounter in a cafe with youthful versions of painter Salvador Dali, photographer Man Ray and filmmaker Luis Bunuel. Dali is inspired by Gil's prominent nose to use rhinoceros horns (one of his familiar motifs) in a future painting, and Gil, in turn, earnestly suggests to Bunuel that he make a movie about a bunch of people who go to a dinner party and then are unable to leave the house (a droll synopsis of Bunuel's 1960 film, The Exterminating Angel). "Why can't they leave?" Bunuel asks, puzzled. "They just can't," Gil explains.
You have to watch closely to get all those jokes, and some of the more arcane references are likely to send you on Wikipedia searches for explanations. But that's another great thing about Midnight in Paris. You're likely to come away with it eager to re-experience the classic art, literature and music that Allen utilizes for comic material -- or even, if it's been a while since you visited Paris, to return and stroll those boulevards and ancient, narrow side streets again, in search of your own special muse.
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