Saturday, December 17, 2011

Midnight in Paris

I've found Owen Wilson to be more a pretender than an actor. But in Midnight in Paris he channels Woody Allen, down to the vocal inflections, neuroses and challenges to intellectual pomposity. And he's wonderful because the story is so good. A young man Gil (Wilson) and his fiancee Inez (Rachel McAdams) are visiting Paris with her parents. She drags him along to tourist sites with her friends Paul and Carol, but Gil would rather wander the city and dream. A successful hack screenwriter, he aspires to be a Real Writer, and one midnight an old Peugeot full of partygoers picks him up. They transport him to the 1920s where he is delighted to meet all the luminaries you know about if you love the era: Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Cole Porter, Hemingway (Corey Stoll), Josephine Baker, Picasso, Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates) and Alice B. Toklas, Dali (Adrien Brody), Bunuel and Man Ray, "Tom Eliot", and an enchanting young artists' model, Adriana (Marion Cotillard), who helps him to see that his fiancee is not the right match for him.

The music, the lights, the costumes and laughter wonderfully evoke the Jazz Age atmosphere in which Gil immerses himself by night. During the day he dodges Inez and the pedantic Paul, using his midnight experiences to toss in some unknowable mots about the artists they admire from a safe and stuffy distance. While Inez and her mother furnish a house the young couple do not yet own in Malibu, Gil is eagerly rewriting his novel, which Stein is critiquing for him.

Woody Allen has been playing with history (and time itself) for much of his career, from parodies of historical figures in Bananas, Love & Death, Zelig and Broadway Danny Rose, to time travel in Sleeper and Stardust Memories. By elevating comedy to this level of enchantment, he has struck the truest note yet in his exploration of time, nostalgia and memory. We're with him all the way, bumbling along with 21st Century rube Gil in wide-eyed awe of a milieu just out of reach of our recollection, but legendary.

If you know nothing about the Twenties in Paris, you will miss many of the references, but maybe this charming film will entice you to find out more.

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