I had every intention of letting this one slide. Can’t get to everything, after all, especially when I have so much going on outside this blog. But mostly, I had no curiosity about this film because I knew it was a Woody Allen picture.
Though I’m familiar with Allen’s reputation, I haven’t yet gotten around to seeing any of his older classics, such as Annie Hall. As for his more modern films, I kept looking at their trailers and casts with the distinct feeling that they were all the same movie. They all starred some neurotic shlub who somehow has a ridiculously young and beautiful love interest. The only real change that I could see with more recent years is that now, Allen has been casting other actors in the role he previously occupied. This time, the role is played by Owen Wilson, an actor who’s borderline worthless when he isn’t working with Ben Stiller or Wes Anderson. So yeah, I was ready to write this one off.
But now, a month after it debuted, Midnight in Paris is still going strong as it ever was. Not only is this Allen’s highest-grossing film in decades, but the critical acclaim has grown impossibly high. Finally, I decided that I couldn’t ignore this film any longer. It wouldn’t have been my first choice as an introduction to Woody Allen’s work, but it’ll have to do.
Right off the bat, Allen caught my attention with his camerawork. The film opens with a prelude that wonderfully shows Paris as a bustling and beautiful city. There isn’t even any dialogue in these first few minutes, just one gorgeous shot after another.
However, though the camerawork stays consistently great throughout the movie, things did go slightly downhill when Wilson first opened his mouth. He plays Woody Allen, this time going by the name of Gil Pender. Gil is a writer on a trip to Paris with his fiancee, Inez, played by Rachel McAdams. Before long, they run into Paul (Michael Sheen) and Carol (Nina Arianda), two old friends of Inez. Duly, Gil makes an idiot of himself out of jealousy. This worked in Bridesmaids, but it totally fails here. Three reasons why:
- Wilson’s shows of desperate idiocy aren’t broad enough to be shockingly funny, but they’re too strong to be endearingly pathetic. They subsequently fall into a middle ground with a sickening splat.
- Unlike Rose Byrne’s character in Bridesmaids, there’s nothing remotely malicious about Paul. He isn’t actively trying to take away Inez, nor does he seem interested in making Gil look bad, he’s just being his own handsome and incredibly smart self. Paul isn’t a bad person by any apparent measure, so it’s harder to sympathize with Gil’s jealousy.
- Most importantly, Gil is defending something that’s broken. From the very first line of dialogue, it’s made obvious that Gil and Inez don’t see eye-to-eye on anything and they’re completely miserable together. We’re never given any decent explanation for why the two got engaged, so watching him break his back to save the engagement doesn’t look adorable so much as it looks stupid.
So, yeah: Gil does not start out as a sympathetic character. Fortunately, though Gil’s engagement is a huge part of the movie and his character, it isn’t his defining trait. Far more central to the character is that in his mind, the world was a far better place in the 1920s than it is now. He’s nostalgic for an older time — a golden age that may not have been the utopia we imagine it to have been. That’s a much more relatable state of mind and it serves as the film’s crux.
I hesitate to go further, because the promotions for the film completely omit this next point. It’s played as a big reveal and I personally found it more enjoyable having no prior knowledge of it. However, the reveal comes fifteen minutes in and it’s the entire premise of the film, so I’m just going to come out and say it: Gil discovers a time warp.
Through whatever kind of magic circumstance, a cab comes around every midnight to pick Gil up and drive him to the 1920s. There, he meets all manner of artistic luminaries — I don’t dare spoil their identities — every one played with gusto by the likes of Adrien Brody, Alison Pill, Kathy Bates, Tom Hiddleston and Corey Stoll. Naturally, he meets another love interest played by Marion Cotillard and the two hit it off.
Thus, we begin the second act and the movie kinda stalls. Gil struggles with his relationship woes in the present, he goes and has a great time in the 20s when midnight rolls around, lather, rinse, repeat. The scenes in the present were especially awful, since Inez and her family are completely unbearable. These characters are not funny, they’re not interesting, they have absolutely zero development and they only serve to give our protagonist (read: the audience) headaches. Worst of all is that Gil and Inez are so transparently set up for a split that it begs the question of why they don’t just get on with it and spare everyone the pain. Every time these characters got into one of their many unfunny, torturous and one-sided tiffs, I wanted to scream “Just shut up and dump the bitch, already!”
I was ready to write the narrative off as entirely predictable… but then came the third act. And my jaw dropped so hard that it damn near dislocated. With one voice, every neuron in my brain cried out “OH, NO YOU DIDN’T!”
That twist at the start of the third act hit me really hard, because it was something so perfectly unpredicted in such a totally predictable narrative. It didn’t make any sense, yet considering everything that had been established about the character and the premise, it made total sense. It gave the film a climax, but not one that was so dramatic that it clashed with the movie’s lighthearted nature. It elegantly resolved two of the movie’s central development arcs, doing so in a way that didn’t feel forced or preachy. It reaffirmed the beauty of the past while simultaneously professing that the present is pretty cool as well. In short: This twist is fucking brilliant.
From that point on, the film goes back on its rails and coasts through to the ending. Still, it works because we see that Gil is clearly different for everything that he’s been through. He’s developed into a stronger, more likable character, which makes the film that much more satisfying.
If I had to describe Midnight in Paris with one word, it would be “sweet.” This is a film made by romantics for romantics. The proceedings are predictable, yet the theme is presented with an endearing amount of sincerity and heart. Though Inez and her parents poison a good part of the screen time, the rest of the characters are very nicely developed and a joy to watch. The film has a sense of humor that doesn’t really appeal to me personally, but I wouldn’t complain if you’re of a different opinion on that and there were still enough moments that made me smile. Last but not least, the film is so wonderfully made from a technical standpoint — with a uniformly awesome cast and gorgeous visuals from start to finish — that there’s no way to possibly call this film a bad one. Though it certainly isn’t a masterpiece, this movie is still a nice breezy time that’s definitely worth a look.