Thursday, September 8, 2011

'Midnight in Paris' a film of pure enchantment

Owen Wilson doesn't know that he's in Leonardo DiCaprio's dream-crime right now.

The cinema of Woody Allen has always been a slight form of fantasy for me to begin with. His films about New York intellectuals grappling with neuroses and romantic entanglements under Manhattan’s watchful gaze, or Americans rushing through European adventures that challenge their understanding of life, always feel to me a little like depictions of another world. And in a way, I suppose they are.

Allen has always flirted with fantasy in his films, even the ones deeply rooted in real human experience. From the animated sequence and the flash backs of Annie Hall to the fictional characters coming to live in Deconstructing Harry, he’s never been afraid to let his work take off, however briefly, into the realm of the fantastic.

Midnight in Paris is the purest form of this blending of fantasy and reality yet. In one of his most vital and energetic films, Allen takes his archetypal protagonist – a guy who often wishes his reality would alter – and quite literally drops him in another time and place. The result is a charming, imaginative and surprisingly warm film by one of America’s most distinguished directors.

Gil (Owen Wilson) is, like many other Allen leading men, a guy uncomfortable with his life. He’s a successful screenwriter but he’d rather write his novel about a guy who works in a nostalgia shop. He’s engaged to the beautiful but often shallow Inez (Rachel McAdams), but while she keeps shopping for the perfect Malibu home, he’d rather have an attic apartment in Paris. He lives in 2010, but he longs to be a part of the legendary “Lost Generation” of the 1920s.

Gil’s desire to live a life other than his own seems to reach its peak when he and Inez travel to Paris with her uptight, wealthy parents (played hilariously by Mimi Kennedy and Kurt Fuller). Inez wants to shop for obscenely expensive furniture with her mother and visit museums with her arrogant and often pedantic friend Paul (Michael Sheen), who’s so sure of how smart he is that he’ll even argue with tour guides.

Gil would rather romanticize about Paris in the rain than indulge in his fiance’s tourist clich├ęs. One night after dinner, he wanders off and gets lost on a deserted Parisian street. A little drunk, he sits down on some steps as the clock strikes midnight, and suddenly a car that looks like it’s from another time pulls up, and some people invite him to get in and go to a party.

Improbably, Gil gets in, and even more improbably suddenly finds himself drinking with Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald (Tom Hiddleston and Alison Pill) and listening to the grand and cocksure declarations of Ernest Hemingway (Corey Stoll). He thinks he’s cracking up, but the next night it happens again, and the next night, and Gil finds himself rubbing shoulders with an extraordinary cast of characters including Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates), Pablo Picasso (Marcial Di Fonzo Bo) and Picasso’s lover, an enchanting young woman named Adriana (Marion Cotillard).

Gil’s world becomes all about his second life, and as it does he sees even more things wrong with his first. He’s falling for Adriana while Inez becomes more distant. He’s giving his manuscript to Stein to read while his practical working life seems to fade. He’s in love with his strange new world, and he’s in love with the life he could have there.

Allen is no stranger to making films about men who’ve had to compromise, and who often wish for some sort of ideal existence that’s just out of reach.  With Midnight in Paris he brings those ideals to life and then pokes holes in them, a literal spin on always wanting what we can’t have and always thinking that the Golden Age has long since passed us by. It’s a film about learning to make the most of the present, but rarely has such a message been conveyed with such vitality and humor.

Wilson shines as the in over his head dreamer. He fits into the Allen movie machine nicely, carrying the film and somehow managing to keep his presence vital even as the screen is packed with stars. McAdams is convincingly nasty, but not in a hateful way, and the supporting cast revel in their chance to portray icons. Everyone in this film is having fun, and it’s particularly evident in the smaller moments, as when Adrien Brody (as Salvador Dali) savors the chance to say the word “rhinoceros.”

Midnight in Paris is Woody Allen in top form, taking his second favorite city (after New York, of course) and painting it in seductive tones of fantasy, love and nighttime dreaming. His iconic dialogue style melds with soft and beautiful camerawork by the great Darius Khondji to create something lush and magnificently life-affirming. More than four decades after he began making movies, Allen is still capable of greatness, and Midnight in Paris is destined to be listed among the very best of his films.

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