May 27, 2011

MOVIES: Midnight in Paris (Woody Allen, 2011)

An absolute charmer about the appeal (and the peril) of nostalgia; Allen's best movie in at least 20 years.

It should be noted that the advertising and trailers for this movie have, for once, not given away one of the central plot points. Many of the reviews have, however, which is a shame; I think the movie will be more fun if certain things are allowed to come as a surprise.

Owen Wilson seems an unlikely choice to play the central Woody role, but here he is as Gil, a moderately successful screenwriter who is not content to be such. Gil dreams of being a novelist, and is working on a book about a man who works in a nostalgia shop, selling old tchothkes and memorabilia. He's on vacation in Paris with his obnoxious fiancee, Inez (Rachel McAdams), and her even more obnoxious parents (Kurt Fuller and Mimi Kennedy).

Inez wants to play tourist, which is boring Gil, especially after they run into her old friend Paul (Michael Sheen, giving a precisely pompous performance), a know-it-all professor with a habit of "correcting" tour guides. Gil is desperate to get away, and as he wanders the streets of Paris late one night, he finds himself in the middle of a circle of artists -- writers, painters, composers -- from whom he takes great inspiration. As he spends more and more nights with his new friends, the thought of going back to the States with Inez begins to look less appealing.

Wilson is charming here, and is wisely not attempting to imitate Allen's distinctive rhythms (as many of Allen's leading men have foolishly done in recent years). There are certainly lines that you can't help but hear in Allen's voice, but Wilson's own rhythms are slower, more relaxed, a bit more perplexed and bemused. Marion Cotillard gives her best English-language performance yet (actually, the first good one that I've seen) as Adriana, who is something of a serial muse, providing one artist after another with sex and inspiration.

The cast also includes Kathy Bates, impeccably cast as the unoffficial leader of Gil's new circle; Corey Stoll, never quite overdoing the macho, terse shtick as a particularly manly author; and Adrian Brody, who has a marvelous cameo as an eccentric painter.

There's a moment when Gil talks about the importance of an artist learning from the past, but not dwelling there; your material is the world you live in, and you can't be so obsessed by nostalgia that you ignore the present. It's a little hard not to hear this as a lecture from Allen to his audience, a "stop asking me to keep making my early movies" plea. In light of that, I should perhaps feel a bit guilty in noting that Midnight in Paris is very evocative of some of those earlier movies; there are hints of Sleeper and The Purple Rose of Cairo, among others. It's a delightful movie, absolutely worth seeing.

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