There's a strain of magical realism that runs through the filmography of Woody Allen that pops up - and delightfully so - in his newest film, Midnight in Paris.
From Alice to Mighty Aphrodite, from Scoop to Zelig and The Purple Rose of Cairo, all the way back to his short fiction (particularly "The Kugelmass Episode" in his collection, Side Effects), Allen has shown a fanciful touch that is part magic, part surrealism, part fantasy. His characters suddenly find their reality shaken by something that seems to be impossible - yet is happening to them.
That was the case of everything from Alice and the title character's ability to disappear to The Purple Rose of Cairo (and its delicious switcheroo, with characters moving between the world of a movie onscreen and the real world off the screen).
Now, with Midnight in Paris, Allen indulges himself again, this time with a bit of ethereal time travel. And he manages to be poignant and funny at the same time.
The central character is Gil Pender (Owen Wilson, an actor whose oddball affect makes him seem born to say Woody Allen's dialogue). He's a successful Hollywood screenwriter who thinks of himself as a hack and who is dying to give it all up to focus on writing a serious novel.
That's what he talks about with his fiance, Inez (Rachel McAdams), and her parents (Kurt Fuller, Mimi Kennedy) as they tour Paris together. Gil and Inez are the guests of her parents; Gil and Inez aren't married yet but she's already shopping for furniture for the house she imagines they'll own in Malibu.
Gil, however, is dissatisfied with the future that seems laid out for him. He talks about how much he'd like a simple artist's garret in Paris, where he could live honestly while working on the novel he's written but isn't satisfied with. She doesn't understand what he's talking about - and pooh-poohs his talk of how great it would have been to live in Paris in the 1920s with the Lost Generation.
He's even unhappier when she connects with an old professor of hers, Paul (Michael Sheen), an unbearable snob and know-it-all, and his wife (Nina Arianda). They're suddenly tethered together, with Gil an unwilling audience for Paul's endless lectures on everything from Versailles to Rodin.
One night, after a wine-tasting, Gil decides not to go dancing with the other three and goes for a walk. A little lost and a little drunk, he sits down on some stairs and hears the cathedral clock chime midnight. Suddenly, a classic automobile - a Roaring '20s-era limo - pulls up in front of him and its occupants invite him to a party.
At the party, it finally dawns on him that, somehow, he has been transported back to the 1920s - and that his hosts are, in fact, Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald (Alison Pill and Tom Hiddleston, currently on view as Loki in "Thor"). By the end of the evening, he's also met Ernest Hemingway (Corey Stoll), who talks almost exactly the way he writes.