Reviewed by Stephen Himes
I’ll leave it to Woody-philes to discuss the place of “Midnight in Paris” in the Allen canon. Overlooked is that “Midnight in Paris,” a parable about romanticism and nostalgia, recalls Early Owen as much as Early Woody, which is the key to its success.
Allen’s cinematographic style is romanticize the setting so that it, in part, explains the neuroses of the Woody doppelganger. Early Woody turned Manhattan into a postcard, inspiring a want of something more but at the same time a yearning for things to never change. Thus, the melancholy strain underlying all truly romantic sentiments: Things can’t be as good as I want them to be, so is this all there is? In “Midnight,” Woody adapts the style to literalize the nostalgia of intellectual Americans in Paris. Allen’s time-bending conceit whisks a “Hollywood hack who never gave real writing a chance,” Gil (Owen Wilson), into a luxury Delage and off to parties with Scott and Zelda and some WWI vet speaking tersely about bulls.
Turns out that Gil’s novel—which is dismissed by his fiancé Inez, who is much more interested in his literary ability to churn out tv scripts that pay the rent in Malibu—is about a guy who works in a nostalgia shop, but Gil’s run into a dead end. Now he’s in Paris with Inez’s family, broad stereotypes of rich right-wing a-holes who are unimpressed by Gil’s obsession with Paris. In the most mysterious part of Allen’s script, these conservatives are charmed by Inez’ college friend Paul (Michael Sheen), sporting the facial hair equivalent of tweed-jacket elbow pads. Regardless, Sheen is a horrifying vision of pedantry, conveniently in town to lecture at the Sorbonne—imagine touring Stratford-Upon-Avon with a recently-tenured Harold Bloom, and you get the idea. After a night of wine (“Paul’s an expert on Bourdeauxs.” “Really?”), Gil separates from the group for some air, and finds himself trying to bend the space-time continuum to get Gertrude Stein a copy of his novel.
Spoiling the cavalcade of Lost Generation cameos would be rude, so let’s move to Allen’s treatment of the theme. As such, all discussion of nostalgia should now begin with Don Draper’s Kodak Carousel pitch.
As Don points out, nostalgia’s roots are in pain from the past, which Americans have confused into bastardized celebrity-themed versions of Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks, an Ozarks vacation destination for conservatives who want freeze 50’s values in amber, and record stores trying to survive by peddling vinyl. Here, Allen acknowledges his own tendency toward self-destructive romanticism, which in his darkest works tends toward saudade. This material could easily have turned into some sort of narcissistic self-flagellation, say, if he’d cast Larry David in the lead. But the film becomes a poignant statement on happiness because of the masterstroke casting of Owen Wilson.
We forget that young Owen didn’t star in the “Wedding Crasher”s of the world. He was Wes Anderson’s writing partner before Wes Anderson’s insufferably pretentious phase (if don’t count “The Royal Tenenbaums”). Wilson’s co-written scripts (“Tenenbaums,” “Bottle Rocket,” and “Rushmore”) center on characters whose excessive romanticism creates a delusional sense of the world—a kind of nostalgia that breeds depression.
We cannot, of course, peer into Owen Wilson’s soul, but considering the heroin-fueled wrist-slitting of 2007, the self-proclaimed “butterscotch stallion” of unsatisfying paychecks movies like of “I Spy,” “Shanghai Noon” (and a sequel), “I Spy,” “The Big Bounce,” “Starsky & Hutch,” “You, Me, and Dupree,” is much darker than he appeared. Filtered through this lens, the self-loathing nebbish of Woody Allen fits Owen Wilson’s hotdog drawl—he’s a slacker Woody, an Alvy Singer 78 played at 33 1/3 revolutions per minute. Watching this older Owen—especially with the baggage he brings to the screen—interact with “artists” is poignant, as if we, and he, are rediscovering Owen Wilson’s indie roots. Considering that this is Owen Wilson’s first leading role since his suicide attempt, an otherwise light bauble feels more urgent.
Intentional or not, Wilson’s wide-eyed wonder compliments Allen’s script, where the Lost Generation sounds exactly like how we imagine them. “Scott” Fitzgerald troubles to keep up with his flighty Zelda, who blazes across town fueled by bohemian pretention and absinthe. Hemingway throws back scotch, then spits out terse sentences about manhood. Gertrude Stein delivers frank, spot-on criticism of whatever’s in front of her. Adrien Brody’s cameo as a certain famous painter is the most life he’s shown onscreen since this Diet Coke commercial. And it goes from here, until Gil is confronted with a choice between pre-fascist professional muse Marion Cotillard and the current-day gold-digger McAdams. Let’s just say that—no offense to Miss McAdams, who is quite lovely—if she got overshadowed by Isla Fisher in her last Wilson screen-romance, what chance does she have against Cotillard in a flapper?
Allen’s ending is far more ambiguous than the “pat epiphany” some critics have suggested. Would some people truly be happier in the past? Or are those types perpetually unhappy—nostalgia as a form of depression? Perhaps Allen’s ending is sentimental, and maybe Gil is romantic and impulsive and spellbound by a Paris that doesn’t really exist. Still, Wilson’s palpable release as he walks over Pont Neuf Bridge convincingly dramatizes the counter to this kind of “realism.” It recalls this palliative caregiver’s list of common deathbed regrets. Maybe Woody Allen’s self-critique isn’t especially incisive, but this is a man who retains artistic control (for better or worse) over his films, who married the woman he loved despite society’s condemnation, and who has dabbled in “real writing” with good results. Woody Allen doesn’t really care what we think, and having the courage to live the true rather than the expected life is a virtue in modern life. Especially for a talented Hollywood hack like Owen Wilson.