THE STORY – Gil Pender (Owen Wilson) is a screenwriter and aspiring novelist. Vacationing in Paris with his fiancee (Rachel McAdams), he has taken to touring the city alone. On one such late-night excursion, Gil encounters a group of strange — yet familiar — revelers who sweep him along, apparently back in time, for a night with some of the Jazz Age’s icons of art and literature. The more time Gil spends with these cultural heroes of the past, the more dissatisfied he becomes with the present.
THE CAST – Owen Wilson, Rachel McAdams, Marion Cotillard, Michael Sheen, Kathy Bates, Adrien Brody & Carla Bruni
THE TEAM – Woody Allen (Director/Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 94 Minutes
Looking back with over a decades-worth of distance and controversies, it’s clear that “Midnight in Paris” was Woody Allen’s final home run at the Oscars. At the 2011 ceremony, it received Best Picture and Director nominations and his third win for Best Original Screenplay. The film enchanted moviegoers with its simple yet transportive central hook. But beyond this magical idea, “Midnight in Paris” is a sedate, one-note affair that offers only a cursory examination of the dangerous appeal of nostalgia.
Gil (Owen Wilson) is a frustrated author hungry for success. While visiting Paris with his fiancée Inez (Rachel McAdams), he seeks inspiration in the romantic settings around him. One night while out strolling, he suddenly finds himself whisked away to the 1920s, where he encounters several of his artistic idols. He finds himself longing to stay rooted in the past as the present becomes decidedly less appealing by comparison.
It’s hard not to be captivated by the time-traveling concept around which the film revolves. Indeed, the off-hand, casual way Gil is transported into 1920s Paris is one of the film’s most innovative choices. Where many movies would trip over themselves examining how this metaphysical impossibility works, “Midnight in Paris” simply avoids delving into the specifics and rules of Gil’s journey to the past. This not only makes the fantastical phenomenon more intriguing to both the audience and the character, but it also allows the film to focus on what Gil does with his unexplained gift rather than wasting time with unnecessary explanations that would bring nothing of value to the plot or themes.
As Gil enters his waking dream, he encounters an impressive array of literary and cultural superstars. The running gag of him unceremoniously bumping into such esteemed figures as Salvador Dali (played by a hilarious Adrien Brody) or Gertrude Stein (a typically grounded Kathy Bates) never grows old. Corey Stoll is the standout of these all-star appearances as an exaggeratedly macho Ernest Hemingway. It’s mighty convenient that so many of these figures seem to occupy the exact same spots which Gil frequents exclusively, but given how fantastical the movie is, it’s easy to brush this concern away.
However, besides these cameos, the characters who make up the structural base of “Midnight in Paris” are varying degrees of uninteresting or, worse, irritating. Wilson doesn’t bring much depth to his character besides his expected “Aw, shucks,” bewildered shtick. As his 1920s paramour Adriana, Marion Cotillard portrays the kind of dull character that others are constantly awestruck by, but she never seems to convey anything more than just vague pleasantness. However, McAdams is handed the beyond-thankless task of playing the worst character in the film – Gil’s present-day fiancée. She’s a typical “problem” character who only exists to bring down the film’s leading male. Still, Allen cranks her irksome personality traits way up with the unforgivable and unforgiving way that she’s written. From the beginning, Inez complains about everything around her, from the gorgeous Parisian setting to Gil’s distaste for spending money. McAdams does her very best to find moments of energy to prevent her character from being anything other than a nagging annoyance. Still, it’s hard to imagine anyone successfully portraying such a poorly devised character.
Allen’s vision as a director doesn’t offer much to support the magical realism of the screenplay. His talents rarely extend to bringing visual splendor to his films, and in “Midnight in Paris,” his lackluster aesthetics are particularly glaring. The film is content to let a handful of underwhelming period costumes and sparsely adorned sets suffice to transport viewers to a world where the main character can’t stop ogling. Notably, the film doesn’t entirely change its energy in any way when shifting from the past to the present.
When it finally comes time for Gil to reckon with the realities of his spirited life, the screenplay only gives him some shallow lines of dialogue to tie the film’s themes together. For a movie all about how seductive living in the past can be and how facing the present day is the only viable way to live – a message that’s only gotten timelier as years have gone by – it wraps things up far too quickly in a way that almost seems as if Allen himself doesn’t fully believe this.
The central premise of “Midnight in Paris” is magical, but Allen’s execution is not. His muted style and shallow examination of his own film’s themes make it a half-hearted late-career exercise in high-concept storytelling rather than the lush, otherworldly, fully transportive experience it could’ve been.