Woody Allen's record hasn't exactly been spotless lately. For example, though I basically enjoyed his effort last year, I was certainly in the minority, and his other recent films "Whatever Works" and "Vicky Cristina Barcelona", though with their admirers, are certainly not up to par with Allen's earlier filmography. That's why "Midnight in Paris" had so much promise - with many at Cannes calling it a return to form for Allen. And though the film does deliver in many ways (especially in the charm that it's been repeatedly said to exude), it also fall short from being as good as classic Allen.
Owen Wilson plays Gil Pender, a screenwriter who is on a vacation in Paris with his fiancee, Inez (Rachel McAdams), and who is also working on a novel which he hopes will solidify him as a legitimate writer - not just the shallow corporatized one he feels he has become in Hollywood. Feeling disillusioned by his modern life and with his fiancee's rich parents (Mimi Kennedy and Kurt Fuller) and pedantic friend Paul (Michael Sheen), Pender yearns for what he considers the golden age of Paris - the roaring 20's. Gil soon gets his wish when a mysterious car comes to pick him up at the stroke of midnight, and transports him directly back to the time period for which he yearns, throwing him into the midst of great authors and artists like F. Scott Fitzgerald (Tom Hiddleston) and Ernest Hemingway (Corey Stoll) along with an enigmatic beauty, Adriana (Marion Cotillard), with whom he soon falls in love.
As a continuation of Allen's cinematic love affairs with European cities (Barcelona in "Barcelona", London in "Tall Dark Stranger"), "Paris" is completely successful. Sure, it treats Paris like an unrealistic utopia, but that's acceptable considering that most Americans see it in that way. Plus, Allen never forgets the fact that the film is in essence a love letter to Paris, filling the screenplay with monologues about its beauty and even making the movie's first three minutes a montage of Parisian streets. For someone who's never been to Paris (like myself) this adoration of the city is perfectly welcome.
Also completely welcome is the lack of a narrator. This allows the film to work on its own behalf for the most part - a refreshing change from the plodding narration in other recent Allen films.
Though Wilson is given a few solo talking-to-himself monologues that could be effectively interpreted as narration, he sells them, and despite the fact that it doesn't quite allow the film to speak for itself as much as it could, compared to a bored sounding male reciting how excited a particular character was about architecture, it's tolerable and, occasionally, even a bit endearing.
What's absolutely not endearing about the film, however, is its complete lack of complex characters. Though it does make sense for the famous authors and artists of the past to be somewhat "fake", there's no excuse for real life characters like Inez and Paul, both of whom (among others) are devoid of any shades of interesting characterization. Problems like this make many of the plot points of the film more like plot nubs (because they're pointless -- ha ha, get it?).
However, that is not to say that the acting is poor, as the cast works very well despite the script's shortcomings. Wilson is probably giving his best performance to date (it helps his character is actually kind of interesting) and works perfectly as a stand-in for Woody. Mimi Kennedy, Adrian Brody and Alison Pill all shine in brief roles, and Marion Cotillard gives her potentially stock character the most interesting shades of humanity (not that this should come as any surprise - it seems like Marion is always doing more than the script's bare minimum). And even Rachel McAdams and Michael Sheen do well considering what they're given to work with.
But despite the movie's fundamental problems, it still manages to be irresistibly
charming and utterly adorable. I couldn't stop smiling throughout - it's funny, it has clever dialogue, and the ending is almost perfect.
It's not necessarily the Woody Allen comeback some are claiming it is, but we're definitely getting closer. If Woody can mix the charm and fantasy of this film with the complex characters of his earlier work - perhaps we'll then have a new masterpiece. For now though, we can at least enjoy what he's giving us.
See it: If you have a yearning desire to go to Paris, if you like seeing a cast at its best, if you are a Woody Allen die hard, or if you've always thought that Owen Wilson could be taken seriously as an actor but he just never got the right role.
Skip it: If you like complex characters, or if you've seen "I Spy" and know that Owen Wilson can never be forgiven for that movie.