Midnight in Paris is a lark, a souffle, a delightful shaggy-dog story with Owen Wilson as its shaggy hero. What's Wilson doing in a Woody Allen movie about a B-list screenwriter who time-travels from the present to the Jazz Age? Disarming the audience with his wistful joie de vivre, that's what.
Lucky is he who lived in Paris in his youth, thinks Gil (Wilson). Luckier still is he who lived in Paris during the 1920s, an era before digital clocks, when minute and hour hands caressed at midnight, jazz was hot, and champagne flowed like the Seine.
Would that he lived in that Golden Age when Ernest Hemingway hammered out manly phrases on his Royal typewriter, Cole Porter tickled alliterative sonnets from his Steinway, Picasso evoked the eroticism of almond-eyed beauties at his easel, and Gertrude Stein served as the cultural den mother to these frisky, creative cubs.
Alas for Gil, a screenwriter with hair like a strafed cornfield and a heart like that of a pining troubadour, he lives in the present day of digital clocks and laptops. But a guy can dream, can't he? In France with his fiancee, Inez (Rachel McAdams), this self-described "Hollywood hack" and aspiring novelist, this broken-nosed Sleeping Beauty, is awakened by Paris. To mix the fairy-tale metaphor, Gil's party, unlike Cinderella's, doesn't end at midnight. That's when it begins. Because that's when Gil is transported by a two-toned taxi to the Paris of his dreams.
Midnight in Paris is not a perfect movie - as in Julie & Julia one senses its creator's impatience to leave the bleached-out present for the colorful past. But it is warm and effortless, qualities that make it embraceable.
After an unpromising opening montage resembling views of Paris from the tour bus - on your left, the Louvre, ahead that's Montmartre, and to your right, the Place de la Concorde - in shuffle Gil and Inez. He's turned on by the city's creative ghosts; she's turned on by shopping.
Inez is also turned on by Paul (Michael Sheen), her know-it-all former professor, a pedant who diagnoses Gil's problem: Inez's fiance, he says, suffers from "Golden Age thinking," denying the present by indulging in fanciful dreams of the past.
That novel Gil is writing? It's about a man who owns a nostalgia shop. One night while roaming the streets and outlining his next chapter, Gil hears the chimes of midnight when he's invited into a taxi by Americans in 1920s costume. Their names? Scott and Zelda, the latter played by the loopy beauty Alison Pill.
Those who can place the names of these American expats will enjoy Midnight in Paris more than those who cannot. But even one who doesn't know Gertrude Stein from Dora Maar or Luis Buñuel from Salvador Dalí can enjoy the enchanting premise of the film in which Gil befriends his cultural gods before their ascent to Olympus, and gracefully navigates the gulf between their time and his own. (As does cinematographer Darius Khondji, whose modern-day Paris is harshly overlit and whose old-time capital has the tomato-reds, ceruleans, and blacks of a cubist painting.)
During his midnight rambles among American and Spanish expatriates in Paris, Gil meets the ravishing Adriana (heartstoppingly beautiful Marion Cotillard). To paraphrase a line from Allen's similar-themed The Purple Rose of Cairo, Gil has just met a wonderful new woman. She lives in a different era, but he can't have everything.
While the heady Adriana is more Gil's soul mate than the materialistic Inez (one of Allen's more shrewish creations), something comes between Gil and his new friend that's harder to get around than an 80-year time difference. That something, and how to apply it to life, is the epiphany of Allen's improbable and surprisingly satisfying film about lost illusions and dreams fulfilled.
Contact movie critic Carrie Rickey at 215-854-5402 or email@example.com. Read her blog, "Flickgrrl," at http://www.philly.com/flickgrrl/.