It usually would be extraneous to talk about a movie poster in a movie review, but in this case the poster for Woody Allen's latest feature, Midnight in Paris, is particularly instructive. Here we see Owen Wilson, cast in the role of the stereotypical Allen protagonist and even dressed in a nebbish fashion much like Woody in Annie Hall or any number of his films, walking along the Seine in Paris. Behind him, the city is dissolving into a post-Impressionist landscape, the sky alight with the swirling celestial background of Van Gogh's Starry Night.
Although the character of Gil Pender (Wilson) will find himself transported -- literally, via a vintage Peugeot that appears at the same bend of a Parisian street at midnight -- not to Van Gogh's Arles but to Hemingway's Paris a la Moveable Feast, the poster effectively conveys the magic realism that Allen infuses into the film, his best in recent memory. The opening montage of Parisian scenes from cinematographer Darius Khondji instantly recalls Gordon Willis's sequence near the beginning of Manhattan and makes us feel that we're in the familiar hands of a legendary director returning to form.
This indeed is the heart of the film: the draw of nostalgia, the longing for a past era. Gil is a novelist -- yes, not just yet another Allen protagonist who's a frustrated writer, but a successful screenwriter who yearns to be a serious artist, at that -- who feels he was born in the wrong time. The protagonist of Gil's novel-in-progress? The owner of a nostalgia shop.
Gil is unapologetically romantic and loves walking the streets of Paris, especially in the rain, a passion not shared by his mismatched fiancé Inez (Rachel McAdams). This, of course, is an instant clue that Gil will end up with someone else after Allen's usual romantic recalibrations. It's not the most subtle of scenarios, and it takes all of 10 minutes to hate Inez, her snooty mother and Tea Partier father (Mimi Kennedy, Kurt Fuller) and her old friend and obviously future lover Paul (Michael Sheen), whom she and Gil run into by chance.
But this predictable storyline is really just the excuse for a cinematic recreation of Paris in the 1920s and a whimsical examination of why we always glorify the past. Finding himself lost and alone on the street at midnight after opting out of an invitation from Paul, Gil is summoned to join a carful of overly friendly booze cruisers who take him to a private party where he meets Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald (Tom Hiddleston and Alison Pill) and realizes he's been driven back in time. Soon thereafter, he proceeds to have encounters with an all-star roster of his modernist role models and their cultural contemporaries: Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Picasso, T. S. Eliot, Dali, Buňuel, Man Ray, Josephine Baker, Djuna Barnes, Cole Porter, Juan Belmont. It's a tongue-in-cheek premise to be sure, much like the screen-jumping of Purple Rose of Cairo, and Gil's encounters with famous names keep multiplying to the point of comic absurdity (It seems everyone who was anyone in 1920s Paris constantly hung out with each other and no one else.) But as with Purple Rose, there are real emotions at stake here, and Allen's achievement here is how you stop questioning the realism and go with the magic. With the likeable Wilson, we're happy to follow the wide-eyed Gil onto his personal field of dreams in the City of Light. Corey Stoll is especially good in navigating the sometimes over-the-top dialogue assigned to the ex-pat Hemingway, while Marion Cotillard embodies all the romance and beauty that Gil sees in Paris through her portrayal of Adrianna, the fictitious muse of Picasso and temporary lover of Hemingway. Ironically, and fittingly, she is more drawn to La Belle Epoque, where she and Gil eventually land, only to find that the Gaugins and Degas of that age would rather have lived in the Renaissance; therein lies the light moral lesson of the film.
At this point in the director's career, Allen's fans might be said to embody Gil's yearning for the past. Roger Ebert described a similar phenomenon in his review for Luis Buňuel's Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie in 1972, noting it "has nothing new in it; but Buñuel admirers don't want anything new. They want the same old stuff in a different way, and Buñuel doesn't --perhaps cannot -- disappoint them. The most interesting thing about 'Discreet Charm' is the way he neatly reverses the situation in his 'The Exterminating Angel.'"
(Gil suggests the plot of The Exterminating Angel to an uncomprehending 1920s Buňuel, who can't understand why dinner guests wouldn't just get up and leave. It's good for an esoteric chuckle even if it feels a little too much like a Back to the Future moment.) Such it is with Allen's fans, who surely don't go to his films expecting him to break new ground but rather to present his recycled premises and plot points in new and creative ways.
Case in point: Gil's tortured quest for serious literary achievement harkens back to Isaac in Manhattan, and his journey evokes the screen-hopping in Purple Rose. Paul is an even more pompous (and more two-dimensional) version of Alan Alda in Crimes and Misdemeanors, while Paul's social lurings -- unwanted by Gil, eagerly accepted by Inez -- recall Paul Simon's Tony Lacey character in Annie Hall. There's even somewhat of a variation on that film's Marshall McLuhan moment when Gil is able to tell the "true" story behind a museum piece (he's met the muse) and show that Paul knows nothing of Picasso's work. Most of the recycled devices, though, work within the scheme of the film. One that doesn't: In an improbable coincidence that's needless to their inevitable pairing, Gil finds Adrianna's aged diary at a street market in the 21st-century and thereby gains a tip on a gift for his next time-trip to the '20s -- similar to the more rewarding scenario in Everyone Says I Love You when Woody Allen gains a romantic roadmap to Julia Roberts' heart by eavesdropping on her therapy sessions. Another plot point that falls short on payoff: Inez's father deliberating and then deciding to have Gil trailed by a detective during the night, only to culminate eventually in a 10-second slapstick scene.
Despite his soul-searching and predictable cuckolding, we're never really that worried about Owen Wilson's character. With the procession of beautiful women around him -- Mean Girl McAdams, French first lady Carla Bruni as a museum guide, Cotillard's beautiful dreamer, Léa Seydoux as a young and sexy seller of old records (no Ghost World vinylphile, she) -- it sometimes feels as if we're watching Humphrey Bogart on the trail of Eddie Mars. In the end, we know the "Lucky I ran into you" sentiment of Hannah and Her Sisters will win the day for the protagonist, for this is a Woody Allen rom-com, where even the biggest of cities are small enough that the two people who are meant for each other will eventually have a chance meeting on the street.
Regardless, after a string -- some would say two decades' worth -- of mostly flawed films from the director, Midnight in Paris is a reassuring film. Even when he's had hits such as Match Point or Vicky Christina Barcelona, they didn't necessarily feel like Woody Allen films. Here, though, it's as if Woody has rediscovered Woody. Even if Fellini was, as a famous fictitious moviegoer once pontificated, one of our most indulgent filmmakers, he nevertheless created his own cinematic style, his own filmic language. The same can surely be said of Allen, both in his indulgent streaks and his sui generis screen lexicon. With its repurposed subplots, its convenient existential angst and romantic ennui, comically staccato dialogue, and jazz-flavored soundtrack, Midnight in Paris shows the director making the kind of movie he does best. It's a surprising film that casts a spell over us and reminds us of the magical properties of cinema, and especially of Woody Allen's cinema.