In his last film, "You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger," Woody Allen returned to the deeply pessimistic themes outlined in "Crimes and Misdemeanors" and "Match Point." The illustration wasn't quite as violent or as grave but the message was the same: the universe is empty, there is no absolute morality, and the quality of a person emanates from inside of them rather than through the outside influence of any greater governing force. Characters made poor, selfish choices and the question of their consequence was left hanging, beholden only to instances of universal randomness and something best identified as "luck." While the gravity of actions in "Stranger" was nowhere near the bleak brutality of those in "Crimes" or "Match Point" it was refreshing to see Allen still feeling the need to convey these ideas; on some level it's comforting to know he still wrestles with these sorts of philosophical complexities and feels compelled to deal with them in an artistic way. But it can also feel like he's beating a dead horse. Like his straight comedies, sometimes the shtick wears thin and he's moved to steer the work in a different direction. Little surprise, then, that his newest film, "Midnight in Paris," steps with a much lighter foot and traffics in matters no less serious or complex, just much more friendly and approachable. The result is a quintessential Allen dramedy that adds little to the oeuvre but doesn't take away from it either.
Owen Wilson stars as Gil Pender, a successful screenwriter taking a stab at writing an actual prose novel. Afloat in Paris with his arrogant and uppity fiancee Inez, Gil romanticizes the golden age of the 1920's, wishing he could live in a simpler time where genius rubbed elbows with vision. While stumbling home one evening from a boring social engagement Gil is scooped up by a cab and magically transported to his preferred time where he finds himself attending parties with F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, talking writing with Ernest Hemingway and falling in love with one of Pablo Picasso's mistresses. There isn't much else to it other than that; like in most Allen films the meat of the story is in the dialogue. There's a richness to Allen's treatment of his 1920's luminaries and Gil handles himself well amongst all these intellectual heavyweights; everyone he meets takes an immediate shine to him, laughing and cajoling and basically letting Gil right in to to their circle. The question of conflicting time is never an issue, as Gil is so enamored with the magic of Paris in the 20's that he blends in easily enough to not cause a stir. As things advance, typical Allen plot devices assault the characters: infidelities reveal self-truths and romance blooms in likely and unlikely locales, and by the end of it all everyone's where they need to be and more or less happy with the way things work out.
If not for the happy ending, "Midnight in Paris" would be more or less a rewrite of Allen's "The Purple Rose of Cairo;" the ideas and the themes are so similar, as well as the nifty narrative device of time travel and a main character named Gil, they seem cut from the same genesis cloth. In both films there is a reverence for a bygone era, but only in "Cairo" is there a suggestion that the reality we inhabit is hazardous to the human condition. "Midnight in Paris" speaks to the value of imagination and history, but it also accepts that "Golden Age thinking" is a romanticized view of existence and that if we're really going to make it, we need to accept the reality of the moment we're stuck in. Hemingway may have been a great writer, but he was also capable of being a colossal asshole. Picasso may have had talent to the heavens, but he was a misogynist besieged by paranoid anxieties. These people dealt with these deficiencies the same way as anyone else, and it wasn't the time they lived in that defined them or made them remarkable-it was the way they conducted themselves within that time. Eventually Gil comes to see this, a "minor insight" as he terms it, but it's the key to the film and also a hint at some of the underlying optimism that permeates Allen's usually bleak worldview.
That insight is the major "reveal" of the film, and as such it renders "Midnight in Paris" one of the director's lesser works. Much of Allen's humor is very intellectual; he trades on the idea that you've got almost as decent an understanding of all these historical giants as he does, and if you're close to there the film does yield ample rewards. One of the best scenes is Gil's encounter with Salvador Dali, Man Ray and Luis Bunuel as they attempt to talk him through a romantic conundrum. Though the three surrealists have very few lines, the words Allen chooses for them are so illustrative of their personalities that you come away with the sense that Allen really gets all this shit-really, seriously gets it. The guy's a genius. Of course it helps that his cast here is phenomenal as usual. At this point I don't think there's any way I could dislike Owen Wilson. His portrayal of Gil Pender shines with such wide-eyed enthusiam and boyish amazement I don't think I could bear to see his heart break the way Mia Farrow's does in "The Purple Rose of Cairo." You just want things to work out for him, and I think Allen's casting of Wilson shaped some of the film's overall outcome. Corey Stoll is fabulous as Hemingway, coming off as drunkenly handsome and arrogantly masculine but still possessed with a fearsome intelligence. Adrien Brody takes the aforementioned role of Dali, stealing into the man's skin with impish delight and mischief. Marion Cotilliard is passable as Gil's 1920's love interest, but she's playing to her strengths as a chanteusy flapper type who flirts with the Parisian literary scene. Allen hangs a good chunk of the film's overall philosophical heft on her, though, and she plays out her own golden age syndrome with conviction and believability (she's almost as pie-eyed as Gil when she lands in her dream realm.)
As a love letter to Woody Allen's new home, "Midnight in Paris" is a fine demonstration of all the charm and historical richness that city offers. As a crucial piece in the director's body of work, it ranks closer with a film like "Mighty Aphrodite" than its thematic forebear "The Purple Rose of Cairo;" while visually "Midnight in Paris" is more appealing, it lacks the underlying despondency that defines the best of Allen's films. It's fine for things to work out sometimes, but his strongest films never let us forget how crushing reality is for the dreamers.