Encouraged by positive comments by friends and colleagues, I decided to see Midnight in Paris, an empty if finely crafted vessel that brings us more of the same neurotic nihilism we’ve come to expect from writer and director Woody Allen. I am usually bored by Allen’s meandering movies, with a few exceptions: the amusing Sleeper with Allen opposite Diane Keaton, Hannah and Her Sisters with Michael Caine, which had some wry observations, and my favorite, Bullets Over Broadway, which at the time I thought was a hilarious skewering of left-wing intellectuals amid a backdoor affirmation of middle class values.
They each have something in common, and so does Midnight in Paris; a passive male protagonist who’s less a character than a framing device, and to the extent this movie’s a hit, and apparently it is, its success owes to Owen Wilson, an affable actor and comedian whose accessibility fits the plot structure like a glove. As a hack screenwriter and tortured novelist engaged to a nag (Rachel McAdams from The Lucky Ones), Wilson is less irritating than most Woody Allen stand-ins. His struggle to write a nostalgic novel seems sincere. But it isn’t. Not really.
Opening with an extended montage of alluring Paris alleys, avenues and landmarks from various angles, with lovers in cafes, raindrops, and lights, Woody Allen draws us into Paris memories and myth. The rest of the journey involves interplay between past and present, with the writer and his soon-to-be-in-laws, who are of course terrible rich white people that, just in case we start to like them, have an affinity for the Tea Party. This stroke of stupidity on Allen’s part shows just how out of touch with reality he is. He apparently expects people to accept that someone who would buy a $ 20,000 chair would enlist in the Tea Party, a grass-roots, middle class American movement founded by a CNBC reporter in Chicago. But I digress, if only slightly, as the Tea Party jabs are an indication that something’s not right in gay Paree.
Take the nag played by McAdams. She’s a shallow, blonde, chronically belted Malibu Barbie type, who is drawn to a pseudo-intellectual portrayed by Michael Sheen (Frost/Nixon). Her manufactured character exists purely to drive the writer into the past, flinging insults with abandon, behaving madly and making Charlie’s Angels look like gritty realism. It’s simply impossible to accept that the sensitive artist who sees that he was “born too late” ever would have slept with her, let alone fallen in love and become engaged. But the nasty Tea Party daughter is intended to pave the way for a series of nubile young Parisian women with whom Wilson can depart into the past, or present, keeping company with the world’s best known intellectuals, too many to name here, through a nightly rendezvous with the film’s mysterious motor coach.
When the novelty of meeting renowned artists in Paris wears off, we are left with the writer and his quest for what is best described as faux inspiration through finding someone he loves. But each young woman the hapless, wandering artist encounters matters less than the last. None is too demanding, all are presented primarily as objects, particularly the fetching costume artist played by Marion Cotillard, looking lovely, and the only exceptions are a suicidal hedonist and Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates) the spinster. At the stroke of Midnight in Paris, and even in daylight, Wilson’s writer is transported to a higher place by a series of sensuous young women who barely speak, and, when they do, it’s rarely more than a sentence and hardly amounts to much. The writer’s literary connection, if and when he makes it, is about as deep and abiding as his commitment to the arts, or, for that matter, his fiancee.
Midnight in Paris is well-made in certain respects; it is consistent, seamless in its frivolous purpose, and visually appealing. In isolated scenes, especially those with Mimi Kennedy as the rich bitch, Adrien Brody as Salvador Dali and Ms. Bates as Gertrude Stein, with Cotillard taking one’s breath away while Wilson guides the tale, it poses as an affirming, nostalgic humanism. But this nocturnal outing in the city of lights, more Cafe Woody Nervosa with a trace of Lolita than ode to Paris, is as vapid as a summer fling.