A guy’s on a trip to Paris with his fiancee. Gil (Owen Wilson) is a hack Hollywood screenwriter bemoaning the fact that he never became a “real” author and, besotted by the city’s charms, toys with the idea of staying and doing just that. Inez (Rachel McAdams) is a castrating harpy who won’t buy into his romantic artistic dream when she can buy diamonds and antiques with his crap-movie paychecks instead. Thus it’s no wonder our hero’s eye wanders when an alluring, mysterious French muse named Adriana (Marion Cotillard) enters the picture.
So far, so Woody Allen. The slow curveball he throws in “Midnight in Paris” comes from the fact that Adriana exists in the 1920s, where she’s the mistress of Pablo Picasso and Amedeo Modigliani. Gil meets her when he gets staggeringly drunk on bordeaux, the clock strikes midnight, and he hops a magical cab ride back in time to the Jazz Age Paris of his dreams. The next thing he knows he’s hobnobbing with F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Picasso, Gertrude Stein, Cole Porter, Salvador Dali and a host of other luminaries.
“Midnight in Paris” plays out both as light comedy — “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure” for people with liberal arts degrees — and also as Allen’s self-examination of his own obsession with the era. It’s much more of the former than the latter, as evidenced by the fact that this is Allen’s biggest success in decades, reportedly breaking the $100 million mark at the box office.
It probably doesn’t hurt that the film stokes American fantasies of postcard-pretty culture-capital Paris, which — ironically enough — grew out of the ’20s, when trans-Atlantic tourism was just starting to take off. Allen opens the film with a three-minute montage of iconic Parisian locations, shot with all the moody glamour that cameraman Darius Khondji can bring to it, and set to some keening retro jazz by Allen fave Sidney Bechet (who played nightly at the Theatre des Champs Elysees in the ’20s before being deported for shooting someone).
This swoon over La Ville-Lumiere seems to suggest that falling in love with a city can be a stronger pull than any partner; indeed, Gil’s crush on Paris is all-consuming, whereas Adriana is but one of four available beauties he considers (the others being McAdams, Carla Bruni and Lea Seydoux). And yes, with Wilson channeling Allen’s usual persona, the leading man is a nebbishy type who in no way displays the charisma that would indicate such desirability. In Allen’s world, having impeccably retro taste and rejecting mainstream culture is the ultimate aphrodisiac. Not sure about that one; I think the record collector played by Steve Buscemi in “Ghost World” is probably a more accurate take on where that rabbit hole leads.
“Midnight in Paris” has a nice ambience and easy charm, but the problem is that all these literary and artistic icons come off as cartoonish without really being funny. In this movie, the name-dropping is the joke. (“Hey, that was Djuna Barnes dancing with my girl!”) You’ll surely think I’m willfully spiting the other critics here, but let me be honest: Woody’s universally loathed 2009 film “Whatever Works” made me laugh out loud repeatedly, while the Best Screenplay Oscar-winning “Midnight in Paris” did not. Beyond the laughs, when it comes to the themes of romantic confusion or the allure of European culture over philistine American, he’s been there, sharper and funnier, with 2008’s “Vicky Cristina Barcelona.”
It takes a while for Allen to warm to his theme of nostalgia as denial, of believing in “the erroneous notion that an earlier time period is better than the one we live in.” Judging from his musical and cinematic interests and oft-expressed loathing of modern pop culture, Allen is reflecting on himself here. And yet “Midnight in Paris” fulfills that essential promise of the movies — that you can spend a couple of hours immersed in the time and universe of your choice — and in that sense it’s a fantasy no different from “Avatar” or “Twilight” or movies that would make Woody gag.
“Midnight in Paris” ultimately makes the case for choosing present-day reality over nostalgic escapism, but when your “reality” is an over-paid screenwriting job, staying at the best Parisian hotels, then spending your days wandering quaint flea markets and your nights staggering down Parisian back streets without so much as a trace of the scent of urine or a looming hooded mugger, and with more flirtatious beauties than you know what to do with, well, that’s not a hard choice, now, is it.