Midnight in Paris: A Nostalgia Trip by Hollywood’s Favorite Cynic

I’ve never been the biggest Woody Allen fan. I feel should preface this piece with that statement because I seem to be at odds. Though I haven’t delved into the entirety of Allen’s mammoth filmography, I can honestly say Annie Hall and Manhattan left me cold and lukewarm with their respective experiences. They had a soul, a beating heart with profoundly great intentions, but those moments came too little, too late for me. Maybe I’m crazy, maybe you’re crazy, or maybe I should’ve taken an Advil prior to watching either of those films. In any case, the same cannot be said about Allen’s 2011 opus Midnight in Paris, a 94-minute thesis about the wonders of the past that showers praise all over nostalgia, yet condemns its very concept. It’s a delightfully fantastical picture with brilliantly well realized characters played by more than capable actors. It’s a genuinely sweet love affair of a film, written and directed by a man who wears his cynicism on his sleeve. Ironically enough, it’s a match made in heaven.

Midnight in Paris introduces us to Owen Wilson’s Gil, a Hollywood script writer trying to make it as a novelist, not unlike the artists he idolizes over throughout the film. He’s seen drafting up his novel while on vacation in Paris with his fiancée Inez, played by Rachel McAdams, and her parents. Gil dreams of living in Paris, while Inez would much rather settle for the American suburbs. She loves shopping, whereas he imagines if he is on the same, hallowed ground as Hemingway.

Wilson’s Gil is the Woody Allen character, the lead who is at odds with the circumstances given to him. While touring the Musée Rodin, the character Paul, condescendingly mastered by Michael Sheen, practically plays tour guide with his wife, Inez, Gil and an actual tour guide. Paul oozes pretentiousness, making every word he says met with eye roles by Gil and blind lust by Inez. Gil’s trip of a lifetime is being hampered by the whims of a controlling and unambitious fiancée, and the world’s smuggest man who happens not to be Floyd Mayweather.

Later at night, after the clocks toll midnight, Gil walks upon a 1920’s era car, with its passengers inviting him in. He obliges their request, transporting to the that very decade and era in France. In pure astonishment and bewilderment, he meets the likes of F. Scott Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda, Pablo Picasso, and Ernest Hemingway himself. He is transfixed to be at the time he constantly fantasizes over meeting his literary idols. That is essentially my bloated synopsis of this film without spoiling the truly brilliant moments sprinkled throughout.

Owen Wilson brings an openness to Gil that can be contrarian, yet charmingly so. You can recognize the rut he’s in with his career and love life, yet conveys a cool calmness through his social interactions. He can spark up a conversation, in hopes to find ingenuity in whomever he’s talking to. Rachel McAdams and Michael Sheen play their parts to the tee, offering well intended yet morally shallow characters who become the antithesis of Gil’s mantra. The historical figures are played by a slew of now well-known actors, so I dare not reveal any potential surprises to the reader. But know that these roles are not parody, but glowing representations of each respective artistic icon.

Then there’s Marion Cotillard as Adriana, Picasso’s mistress who may or may not fall in love with Gil. The less said about this character, the better, as her introduction serves to be a turning point in this narrative; a turning point that gives Gil’s problematic vacation even more dilemmas. It’s great stuff.

In the end, however, this is a Woody Allen film, meaning there is no shortage of small talk or banter. While watching Annie Hall, I found this to be distracting and almost compromised the film from delivering its messages. It is perplexing, however, that this is Midnight in Paris’ strongest aspect; the characters are effortlessly well written, having conversations behind the alluringly beautiful Paris backdrop that drips of nostalgia and wonders of pastimes. Here you see a writer/director at his absolute best, with Allen writing his characters the only way he knows how, yet delivering a condemnation of nostalgia. Gil dreams of living in 1920’s, because he is so sure times were much better and simpler then. However, while in the 20’s he meets those who share his sentiments about the mediocrity of their respective contemporary age. The film, like its protagonist, starts as a love letter to ideas and remnants of the past, yet simultaneously realizes how “nostalgia is denial, denial of the painful present”.

Conclusively. Midnight in Paris perfectly encapsulates the experience with falling in love with nostalgic imaginations, yet realizing the past is almost always romanticized because of the drab, unspectacular life the present seems to be. The night scenes, where France transforms to its “Golden Age” are thoroughly entertaining and delightful in a verbal sense, yet beautifully immersive in its filmmaking right. It is an absolute treat to have seen this film with a beautifully yet brutally honest message about the past without being too preachy or on the nose. The best films leave some things to the imagination, with a gracious hint of subtlety to leave so much to the imagination. The time travelling aspect is never explained, or even mentioned as such, and that’s the point. Allen doesn’t give time to explain how it works, and nor should he. Gil doesn’t question it, and in the case of this infectious picture, neither should we.

Final Grade: A+

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