Midnight in Paris (2011)
As always, let’s begin with a little idle speculation. Suppose we have time travel on demand. Just as we can now pay a subscription and watch the latest movies online, suppose a no doubt larger fee would enable us to go wherever we want in time. What would we use it for? As it is, I can buy a ticket and fly to Europe, rent a car and enjoy the local food and wines but, being an old guy and a natural skinflint, I hoard my money and stay home. I suspect my reaction to the opportunity to travel in time would be equally negative. Do I really want to risk all those diseases they had back then for which I have no natural immunity? And then there’s the language, the money and the food. I’ve no confidence the Latin I learned in school will come back to me if I’m lost in Rome and want to find a good place to eat. I know Doctor Who has this nice convention that everyone, everywhere and everywhen speaks standard English and always offers free food that does not give the Tardis crew gastroenteritis with all the vomiting and diarrhoea, but I don’t have the Time Lord’s scriptwriters to keep me safe. I’m thinking it would all be better if we could just be content with what we have now.
Midnight in Paris (2011) is a flawed but nevertheless rather pleasing film written and directed by Woody Allen who, I must confess, has proved a somewhat hit and miss director over the decades. When he’s hot, he produces something magical. But, over his entire career, I think he’s missed the target more often than not. This is not to say the films I consider misses are all total failures. It’s just we seem not to share the same aesthetics when it comes to beauty in film-making. What makes it all the more surprising that I should like this film is the presence of Owen Wilson in the lead. This is the first film in which I actually like his performance — probably because he’s not so obviously trying to be funny. Anyway, he plays Gil Pender, a screenwriter with left wing tendencies (by US standards), wondering whether he has it in him to write the next great American novel. He hitches a ride to Paris with his fiancé’s family and we’re immediately expected to see them as the family from Hell. John (Kurt Fuller) is a stereotypical wealthy GOP ideologue, Helen (Mimi Kennedy) is the ultimate materialist who only sees dollar signs when she considers what she finds important, and the prospective mate, Inez (Rachel McAdams) — it’s not at all clear what our hero would ever have seen in her as a person. No matter how great she may be in bed (and this is by no means certain), this is not a person up with which you would want to put for any length of time. To complete the set of ghastly characters, a friend of Inez turns up. He’s Paul (Michael Sheen), one of these pedantic twits who can hold forth with apparent expertise on everything he encounters. The fact he’s making most of it up is just one of his more endearing qualities.
OK so the plot dynamic is simple to state. From the outset, it’s obvious our hero should find an excuse to avoid marrying this woman (and into her family). The only question is how he will talk himself into making the break. The device adopted is that, whether in reality or his imagination, he travels back in time and discusses his draft novel and his social problems with the cream of the Parisienne art community of the 1920s. A part of the fun of the film is spotting who gets dragged into view and, once he overcomes his surprise, how he relates to all these luminaries. The most important from our point of view are Ernest Hemingway (Corey Stoll), Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates) and Adriana (Marion Cotillard), mistress to Pablo Picasso (Marcial Di Fonzo Bo). It’s not a spoiler to confirm that, as you would want in a romantic fantasy, he makes the right decisions. Suggesting the trips in time are real, our hero finds an old book with an inscription by Adriana. This leads to a nice moment when Inez almost catches him stealing some earrings to give Adriana as a present.
I think the fundamental problem with the film is that it’s too simplistic. The main characters are actually heavy-handed caricatures without any real depth. Gil is self-effacingly diffident except when it comes to arguing politics with his prospective in-laws. Hence, the argument is out of character. He would either be assertive on a range of subjects all the time or he would be predominantly passive to keep the peace with his prospective family, i.e. we see the political argument only to make a black-and-white point about the incompatibility of the man and the family. Further, I don’t really believe he would have become one of Hollywood’s top scriptwriters, always in demand. He lacks that aura of confidence he would need to sell a script to sceptical producers. Worse, given the way he speaks to people, I’m not sure he would write the sentences quoted from the text of the book. No matter who or when he speaks, he never seems to have a profound thought in his head, yet his book is aspiring to say profound things about nostalgia. Finally, the film itself is somewhat superficial on the grass is always greener in an earlier time trope. That we time hop twice to make the point adds redundancy (as does the fate of the private detective).
Yet despite these cavils, I found the experience of sitting through Midnight in Paris quite enjoyable. The opening travelogue introduction is too long but, once we get started, we move along at a brisk pace and get where we need to go without breaking sweat. In saying this, I’m not just praising the professionalism with which the package is put together. That’s a given with a Woody Allen film. The notion of time travel for the purpose of reflection and self-analysis is rather elegant. I just wish it had been left more ambiguously, i.e. without the inscription suggesting the experience is real. I prefer to retain the possibility he fantasises the experiences of time travel while moderately drunk, critiques his own book and works out he should not marry Inez. But, as it stands, it has just enough to make it a good film.