Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Midnight in Paris Review

Midnight in Paris (2011)

My Oscar countdown continues on, this time with Midnight in Paris, which also happens to be my first film of Woody Allen's. This film is a particularly interesting entry into Allen's long body of work, as it is a surprising success after a series of misfires. What I mean is, depending on the person you ask, Allen hasn't made a good film since either 2005's Match Point or 2008's Vicky Christina Barcelona. I have not seen either of those films, so I am looking at the film objectively, and for what it is, it's a pretty damn good film. It was also a surprising commercial success for Allen, in fact, his highest grossing film to date (surpassing Hannah and Her Sisters). But enough about how it rejuvenated Allen's career, let's talk about the film itself. Midnight in Paris is in no way a perfect film, but it is a solid one, and it has its moments of inspired genius as one of the best films of the year. It has its weaknesses, but rises on the strength of its original concept and its array of brilliant supporting performances. For Allen fans I'm sure it will satisfy, but for a newbie like me, it served as a great introduction to a director I hope to explore further in the year to come.

One of the many examples of gorgeous Parisian scenery in the film.
Midnight in Paris is about Gil (Owen Wilson) an American writer who is vacationing in Paris with his fiancee Inez (Rachel McAdams) and her parents. Inez and her parents are thoroughly shallow and unlikeable characters (who I will talk about later), and they all think Gil has a screw loose for the following reasons. Inez dreams of living in the Malibu suburbs and bores easily in Paris, whereas Gil dreams of living in Paris and giving up his Hollywood script-writing career (for which he calls himself a hack) to write actual literature and become one of the literary greats, such as Hemingway or Fitzgerald. From the moment we meet him, we learn that Gil longs to live in a different world, namely, 1920's Paris. Any other film would likely paint Inez sympathetically, but Allen does not do that. His script paints her as a shallow unlikable spoiled bitch, so much that we sympathize with Gil where we would not otherwise.
Example #2 of Parisian scenery

The story proper kicks in when Gil goes out for an evening walk and gets into a strange car that leads him to a strange place. This strange place happens to be the very place he's dreamed about, 1920's Paris. It is there where he meets such legendary figures as the Fitzgeralds, Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Luis Bunuel, and Salvador Dali, and he gains inspiration to finish his book. He goes back night after night and distances himself day after day, much to the chagrin of Inez and her parents, who are as jerky as she is. He also meets a woman named Adriana (Marion Cotillard), Picasso's mistress and muse, who he finds himself instantly attracted to. Gil and Adriana are very similar characters, in that they are both unsatisfied by the present and wish to live in a rose-coloured view of the past. Whereas Gil would rather live in the 20's, Adriana would rather be a costume designer in 1890's Paris.
Marion Cotillard, Allison Pill, Owen Wilson, and Woody Allen respectively

The message of this film is not exactly subtle, but it is one that needs to be stated. Everyone has felt, at least once, that they were born in the wrong time and that they may have been happier in another decade. Wilson states the film's message in a speech near the end of the film in a speech that I'm sure will become somewhat memorable (especially the bit about novocaine at the dentist). The lesson that Gil needed to learn was that although past may be home to artistic legends, there was no penicillin (until 1928), no modern medicine, to prevent the many diseases of the time, and life would pretty much suck for anyone who is not a white man (which Gil is). Not to mention, France would be torn apart again in about twenty years with a little thing called the Second World War. Also, the twenties were only one decade. I'm not sure how badly the Depression affected France, but the twenties were fleeting and unless Gil was living in a stable time loop that went back to 1920 on New Year's Eve '29, history would march on, with or without him. However, accepting the present for what it is doesn't mean one has to live in misery, like Gil certainly would with Inez, and the ending definitely enforces that (though I won't spoil).

Ladies and Gentlemen, the second-greatest thing about this movie. Corey Stoll as Ernest Hemingway

One of the film's greatest strengths is the series of segments that take place in the past, where Gil meets all the creative greats of the time. The present-day segments aren't really that interesting until Gil's visits to the past start to affect the present and change him as a character. Inez and her parents are not very interesting characters, but that is kind of their point, to provide foils for Gil while insulting him at every turn and just being jerks. They are the film's antagonists, were the film to have clear antagonists, and it is them that make Gil a sympathetic character. Adriana is also a foil for Gil in the results of their characters, which I shall not spoil. The film also introduces the idea that nobody is satisfied with their present and everyone is drawn into the allure of another time. It is these things that show the true genius of Allen's script, and the reason why it will certainly be walking home with Best Original Screenplay come Oscar time.

Ladies and Gentlemen, the most memorable thing about the movie.

Speaking of original, another one of this film's strengths is its concept. Although time-travel has been done before, and jumping into another world has also been done before (in Allen's own Purple Rose of Cairo in fact), Midnight in Paris manages to maintain some sense of originality simply because it hasn't been done this way before. Simply put, there has not been a movie where a writer travels back in time through a magic car and meets the artistic and creative legends of the time. It is not a remake, sequel, or reboot, and it shows that there is still some original thought in Hollywood nowadays. This film is truly one of a kind and a film that deserves to be rememebered as one in the filmography of an (allegedly) classic director that needed a really good movie.

The other element of this film that will no doubt turn this film into a classic is the performances. Owen Wilson does a decent job as Gil, providing a sympathetic and interesting lead in a role that I'm sure Allen himself would have played if he were not...say, forty years too old for the part. Wilson plays the nebbish writer type, but Allen mercifully downplays the neuroticness in favour of nostalgia and constantly being annoyed by the shallow people he is surrounded by. Instead of being an insufferable starving artist like he very well could have been in the hands of a different writer, Gil is a reasonably entertaining character and a likable protagonist, though this is exacerbated by the horrible people he has surrounded himself with in the present day. I am not a huge fan of Owen Wilson, but I can't deny that he gave a good performance that was worthy of the Golden Globe nomination that he got. The other present day characters are Inez and her parents, who are played with supreme jerkiness by Rachel McAdams, Kurt Fuller, and Mimi Kennedy. I may hate their characters with a burning passion (because Allen wrote it so I would), but I can't knock their performances, which are pretty good. The only other present-day character worth noting is Paul (played by Michael Sheen), a pseudo-intellectual friend of Inez's, whom she is enamored with but Gil (rightfully) can't stand. He gives a good enough performance, one of the many in this film.

I wish I could crack witty jokes that go along with pictures....
However, the acting that really makes the movie is that from the supporting characters. They are the main reasons why the past segments are more interesting, more witty, and generally more awesome. Some of the more famous members of the supporting cast include Kathy Bates as Gertrude Stein, Tom Hiddleston and Allison Pill (of Thor and Scott Pilgrim fame) as Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Corey Stoll (of Law and Order LA) as Ernest Hemingway, and Adrien Brody as Salvador Dali. Those are the recognizable past characters and the ones that are seen most often, but there is a whole slew of unknowns playing various denizens of Paris. All that I mentioned did great jobs, but the two standouts are definitely Corey Stoll's Hemingway and Adrien Brody's Dali. Stoll was worthy of a Best Supporting Actor nomination in my opinion, as he captured the commonly perceived image of Hemingway perfectly while being downright an abrasive kind of way. He could have easily been nominated in Max von Sydow's place because though he was in the film very little, he totally knocked it out of the park and gave one of the film's most memorable performances. The other extremely memorable performance is Adrien Brody as Salvador Dali. He was in the film even less than Stoll and he is easily the most memorable character to come out of this film. I won't spoil his awesomeness, all I will say is..."rhinoceros". The one original character in the past universe is Adriana, played by Marion Cotillard, and while weaker than the rest of the actors, she definitely did okay. Needless to say, the film was packed with solid performances throughout.

Wilson, McAdams, and Sheen as Gil, Inez, and Paul respectively.

The film also has brilliant visuals, having also scored a nomination for Art Direction alongside Director, Original Screenplay, and Picture. The film opens with an array of shots of gorgeous Parisian scenery (similarly to how Manhattan opens so I hear, except Manhattan is with New York) and it is an utterly perfect beginning to the film, signifying the warmth and joy that this film has to offer. The cinematography is utterly gorgeous, providing some great shots of Paris both past and present, and the sets are impeccably designed. I don't see it taking home the Oscar (which will probably go to either Hugo or The Artist), but it is as visually sumptuous as it is intellectually satisfying. It could have easily scored a nomination for cinematography, but art direction is good enough.

Exhibit A: Why this film scored an Oscar nom for Best Art Direction

All in all, Midnight in Paris is a terrific movie, and I have praised it to death for a reason. Though it does have flaws (albeit very minor ones), it was one of the best films of 2011 and one of my new favourite films of all time, which I look forward to watching again. It features dazzling Parisian scenery, an original concept accompanied by a brilliant script, and a series of fine performances with Owen Wilson giving the single greatest performance of his career. Those who are fans of Allen will love it I'm sure, but it served as a good introductory film for me and I'm sure it will do the same for other Allen newbies. Regardless, I give this film my strongest recommendation, especially around Oscar time. I can't wait to watch more Allen films in the future, and this one has certainly convinced me to do so.

P.S. Personally, I don't long for a past. I'd rather be an older version (by older, I mean early-mid twenties) of myself in the present day. That way, I would have a bit more freedom and I would have the means to travel (namely, to go to England and see Les Mis on the West End).

9/10- Must-See,  Instant Classic 


  1. I totally missed this film at the cinema. I was gutted at the time so I'll be looking to see it on home viewing.

  2. Terrific review, I feel I should check this one out after how everyones been raving about this film

  3. Glad to see you fixed the comments options. Nice review and I agree: I think this is probably Woody's best film since Match Point.

    The Grouch (Al Hitchcock)