With magical realism, Woody Allen steps into Paris literary past
Roughly 20 percent of my year is spent returning emails from Woody Allen lovers demanding to know why I panned his latest movie.
I always respond by saying as soon as he makes a really good one, I'll be first in line to sing its praises.
Well, I lied. I wasn't first in line, because "Midnight in Paris" played at Cannes and opened in New York, and was widely lauded in those locales.
But we're talking about New York, subject of so many Allen rhapsodies, and France, rhapsodized itself in "Midnight in Paris."
So I'm here at the front of line of unaffiliated Allen-bashers to say that his latest, "Midnight in Paris," is funny, humane (minus one shrill female) and mostly delightful.
And a bit of a shock coming from Allen, who's been saying in interviews lately that the universe is a cold, empty, futile place - no certitude, or peace, or help for pain, as the poet said.
OK, life sucks. He's not the first filmmaker to think so. But there's a big difference between "life sucks" and "people suck," and the latter POV has been taking over Allen's recent movies.
I braced for more of the same in the opening moments of "Midnight in Paris," wherein a Hollywood screenwriter named Gil (Owen Wilson) and his fiancee (Rachel McAdams) sit down to dine with her conservative parents in Paris.
There are jokes about the tea party, remarks about the decline of Hollywood movies. Gil trashes the movie industry, thinks of himself as a hack, and wonders why he's so bad at "real" writing - he can't finish his novel.
I was braced for another of Allen's expat critiques of a country and culture in decline. And then, like magic, and via a magical realist device, Gil and "Midnight" go in an entirely different direction.
Gil walks the city alone in the evening, and at the chimes of midnight is carried by a vintage cab to the creative ferment of 1920s Paris, meeting (funny caricatures of) Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Dali, Picasso, Luis Bunuel, F. Scott Fitzgerald. He even gets Stein (Kathy Bates) to critique his novel.
By day he's back in contemporary Paris, trapped with his wife's know-it-all pal (a hilarious Michael Sheen) yearning for midnight, when he re-enters the past.
The yearning becomes especially intense when he meets Picasso's model and paramour (Marianne Cotillard), who may be looking for a new artist to inspire. Perhaps a young American writer?
There is breezy comedy to be made of a YouTube-age writer meeting the icons and idols of a bygone, classical era ("Bill and Ted's Literary Adventure"), but Allen goes deeper, expanding on his time-travel device to make unexpected and unexpectedly generous observations on the enduring nature of art and artists.
"Paris" is full of wisdom, and also full of Cotillard - ingeniously (and convincingly) cast by Allen as the muse and model whose influence goes much further than jazz-age cubists and novelists.
"Paris" is also full of jokes, some updated from the director's own classic bits. Sheen gets skewered in a time-travel version Allen's famous Marshall McLuhan gag from "Annie Hall."
The aliens of Allen's "Stardust Memories" said that if a comedian like Allen wanted to do mankind a service, he'd tell funnier jokes.
In "Midnight in Paris," Allen does us a service.