After a lifetime of making films that were explicit homages to his beloved Manhattan, Woody Allen seems to have reached the “European vacation” phase of his career. He obviously doesn’t know England (Match Point) or Spain (Vicky Cristina Barcelona) as well as he knows the Upper West Side, but these new locales have inspired him and even loosened him up. When describing his latest, Midnight in Paris, one feels compelled to use French pastry analogies: It’s a bonbon, a macaroon, a petit four.
The role of Woody Allen will this time be played by the droll Owen Wilson—who, with his WASPy looks marred by that fabulously crooked nose, has always struck me as Robert Redford’s comedy doppelganger. Turns out, he’s an excellent, if unlikely, stand-in. Wilson has a child-like sense of awe about him, so he represents the romantic side of Woody’s nature well.
Here, he plays Gil, a Hollywood screenwriter vacationing in Paris with his fiancée Inez (Rachel McAdams). Gil is disenchanted with life in L.A.—he’s working on a novel and fantasizes about living the bohemian life in Paris, like his expat heroes Hemingway and Fitzgerald. Inez is slightly alarmed by this fantasy. She’s signed up for a wealthy hack, not a struggling artist.
To complicate matters, an old friend of Inez’s, the kind of self-important prat that Woody loves to make fun of—embodied here by the great British actor Michael Sheen (gossip alert: McAdams and Sheen met and fell in love on the set of this movie—ooh la la)—is also in Paris, and more than willing to squire Inez around and show off his ample (if slightly suspect) knowledge of French art.
One night, while wandering around Paris dejectedly, Gil sees an old-fashioned car. The passengers seem giddy and full of joie de vivre. They beckon for Gil to join them. He ends up at a party where everyone is dressed in roaring ’20s attire. There’s a man at the piano doing a very good Cole Porter impression, and a young couple passing themselves convincingly as Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Gil suddenly realized that this isn’t a costume party—it’s the real deal. He’s been magically transported to Paris in the ’20s. What’s more, these geniuses seem charmed by him—and they take him seriously as a fellow artist.
The rest of the film alternates between Gil, struggling during the day to placate his increasingly irritated fiancée, and disappearing at night into an alternate universe where Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates) is giving him writing advice, Ernest Hemingway (Corey Stoll) is teaching him how to be more of a man, and Salvador Dali (Adrian Brody, just perfect) is making intriguingly obtuse non sequitors. He is perhaps most enchanted, though, by Adriana (Marion Cotillard), the erstwhile girlfriend of Picasso and something of an artist’s muse. She takes a liking to him as well, and suddenly he finds himself falling in love with more than just the time period.
Allen is smart enough to represent the opposing view of Gil’s fantasy–namely, that nostalgia is misguided, that the happy don’t pine for the past, they live soundly in the present.
But when nostalgia is this delightful, who would want to resist?