Woody Allen has at last stopped casting himself in the role of the hero of his films, and that makes for a gain — and a loss. He was never all that convincing as the romantic lead, and indeed his effort to be the lover in his earlier movies made some of us uneasy. But Allen’s presence in those movies also gave an ironic undertone to his romanticism. When the narrative took off into meditations on the everlastingness of love, there was always the bespectacled little nerd saying, “Yes, but what about death?” That was the charm of a Woody Allen movie.
Lacking that small nugget of perversity, Midnight in Paris is a light, diverting fantasy, just in time for summer. In the film a gifted writer, Gil Pender, burdened by his own Hollywood success and a beautiful but lame-brained fiancée, finds freedom in associating with the artists of 1920s Paris. They become available to him only if he manages to get free from his girlfriend’s loud and careless experience of Paris every night at midnight. Finding himself in an atelier like Gertrude Stein’s apartment, he meets another enchanted romantic, in the person of Adriana, a Parisian artist’s model played by Marion Cotillard. Of course, he falls into an impossible romance about her.
Part of the fun in Allen’s film is identifying the 1920s figures who present themselves to the American writer and then assessing the success of their characterizations. As for me, I thought Fitzgerald, as played by Tom Hiddleston, was terrific, though I was not so convinced by Zelda, played by Alison Pill. On the other hand, I found Corey Stoll’s version of Hemingway too stereotyped in its boozy feistiness. Cathy Bates as Gertrude Stein is somewhere in the middle. She performs an important plot intervention because she reads and critiques Gil’s manuscript, but I doubt that the real Stein was ever so generous and grandmotherly as she is in Woody Allen’s movie.
The figure of the nerdly Allen figure is now taken by Owen Wilson, who appears in the film as an attractively naive protagonist–a characteristic reinforced by his wild mop of hair and his broken nose. But his American in Paris role seems unseasoned by any kind of craziness or skepticism. Perhaps Wilson is in awe about being in a Woody Allen movie? At any rate, he seems bedazzled by Parisian girls who function as fresh-faced foils to his cosmeticized girlfriend. In that role Rachel McAdams presents a dire portrait of the new American Girl.
And that is, finally, the only problem I have with Allen’s fantasy of a Paris in which every girl looks like Carla Bruni. Gil’s escape into fantasy is pleasant and alluring, but I have to wonder if Stein would ever have approved of it. I also suspect that Hemingway would have disdained it as lacking the sweat and stink of real life in Paris. And Fitzgerald would have deconstructed its yearning, even though Midnight in Paris has all the earmarks of an homage to The Great Gatsby.
In sum, Midnight in Paris lacks the Yiddish irony of the original Allen character who says of himself in Annie Hall, “You know, I don’t think I could take a mellow evening because I – I don’t respond well to mellow. You know what I mean? I have a tendency to – if I get too mellow, I – I ripen and then rot, you know.” Which doesn’t mean that Owen Wilson is not an appealing character, but the mellowness of his pursuit of a life beyond the present one is a little bit ripe for my taste.
“…boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past…” – F. Scott Fitzgerald