by Miguel E. Rodriguez
Director: Woody Allen
Cast: Owen Wilson, Rachel McAdams, Marion Cotillard, Kathy Bates, Adrien Brody, Tom Hiddleston, Alison Pill, Léa Seydoux, Michael Sheen
My Rating: 10/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 93% Certified Fresh
PLOT: A nostalgic screenwriter travels with his fiancée’s family to Paris where, every night at midnight, he inexplicably finds himself going back in time to the 1920s.
The best of times is now / As for tomorrow, well, who knows?
— La Cage Aux Folles
It’s currently 11:05 at night on a Sunday evening. I’m getting older, so if I’m smart, I should get off to bed, owing to the fact I have to get up early tomorrow to get ready for work.
But I can’t. I have just re-watched Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris for only the second time in my life, and I have revised my original rating of 9 up to a 10. And I am just bursting to write about how wonderful this movie is. I’m hoping that I can reach someone who has not seen it before, so I can convince them that, even if they’ve never seen a Woody Allen movie before, this is the one they should start with. Yes, even over Annie Hall or Manhattan or even Match Point. In my mind, Midnight in Paris captures the voice of the artist as he is reaching a certain age and has something important to say about nostalgia, and how sometimes it’s not always what it’s cracked up to be.
Gil Pender (Owen Wilson) is a Hollywood screenwriter trying to complete his first novel. He and his fiancée, Inez (Rachel McAdams), travel to Paris with her family so he can perhaps get inspired by one of the all-time great cities of the world. He is immediately smitten with the atmosphere of the place; the movie opens with a wordless montage of static shots of Parisian cafés, streets, museums, statues, apartment buildings, and, of course, the Eiffel Tower. The sequence sounds simple on paper, but the effect is – I don’t know how to describe it. It captures the ineffable romance of the place. More so than any other movie set in Paris, Midnight in Paris really, REALLY makes me want to go there.
Gil and Inez seem happy enough, but he is a little more antisocial than she is. He is star-struck by Paris, but Inez is not incredibly fond of it. They bump into an old friend of Inez’s, a pleasant enough man who turns out to be a bit pedantic; during a museum tour, he presumptuously corrects the tour guide on details of the life of Auguste Rodin. This is not the kind of guy I would want to be stuck with on an elevator.
One night, Gil goes walking by himself on the Paris streets and gets a little lost. Long story short, he inexplicably finds himself transported back to Paris of the 1920s, when the cafés were full of American expats and frequent visitors like Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Cole Porter, Gertrude Stein, T.S. Eliot, Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dalí, etcetera. As a writer, Gil is over the moon; it just so happens his unfinished novel is about a man who runs a “nostalgia shop”, so this pleasant turn of events is a welcome tonic to his vaguely unhappy days back in the present.
Watching the scenes of Gil rapturously conversing with Hemingway, or goggling at Cole Porter playing the piano, I was swept away by the audaciousness of this movie. It’s illogical and steeped in fantasy and seems to be begging not to be taken too seriously. But it is a pure joy to watch. I immediately identified with Gil. I found myself imagining how I would respond if I were somehow transported back to a time and place when some of my own idols walked the Earth: Hollywood, the 1940s, walking around and conversing with Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock, Jimmy Stewart, Katharine Hepburn. Or even not so far back: the 1970s, having lunch with young Spielberg and Coppola and Lucas, and Pacino and Streep and DeNiro, discussing film and life and getting insight into their inner workings.
From our perch in the present, it’s easy for us to look back at the past and say, well, those were the days. Just earlier today, I was having an online discussion about the difference between CGI and practical effects in movies like Star Wars or The Lord of the Rings and even Honey, I Shrunk the Kids. We tell each other that older movies felt more real because the effects were made with real props occupying real space, whether they were miniatures or matte paintings or what have you. And we say, “Man, they just don’t make them like that anymore. They knew what they were doing back then.”
That’s Gil. He looks around at the shimmering jewel of Paris in the 1920s and he’s convinced that this is “where it’s at.” What can today’s world offer in comparison to sitting in a café and discussing art with Salvador Dalí and Luis Buñuel? Or the pleasure at hearing Ernest Hemingway tell you he’ll hate your book, even if it’s good, because that would make you a better author than him? Or getting constructive notes on your novel from Gertrude Stein?
The story progresses. Gil becomes infatuated with a beautiful woman from the past, Adriana (a luminous Marion Cotillard), and it becomes harder and harder for him to go back to his own present each night. Inez’s father gets suspicious and hires a private detective to follow Gil during his midnight strolls. You may ask how a private detective can follow someone who is traveling back in time. Well, my friend, that is an EXCELLENT question, one which the movie answers in satisfying and gut-busting fashion in the final reel.
But the heart of the movie lies in the touching, revealing segment when Gil and Adriana go even further back in time, this time in a horse-and-carriage, back to the Belle Époque, the “Beautiful Age” of Paris, which lasted from about the 1870s to the 1910s. Adriana, who lives — lived — in the ‘20s, is entranced with this even more bygone era. She feels about the Belle Époque the way Gil feels about the ‘20s. To her, the ‘20s are slow-paced, a drudge. But, oh, to be back in the 1890s! Dinner at Maxim’s, the Moulin Rouge, meeting Toulouse-Latrec and Gauguin and Degas! How wonderful those days must have been compared to the Boring Twenties!
And there’s the message of the movie. We can grouse and grumble about the modern world all we want. The movies are dime-a-dozen. The books even more so. The music is crap. Cell phones have turned us into tiny-screen junkies. But, oh, to be back in the good old days of the 1980s, when the music was gnarly, and the movies were iconic, and the books were amazing, and everything was just better.
But we forget that, in the ‘80s, people were grousing and grumbling about THAT era, and they longed for the more sedate and rosy era of the 1950’s. And in the ‘50s, people said the ‘30s were the BEST. DECADE. EVER. And so on and so on.
It’s human nature for us not to realize what we’ve got going for us until it’s gone. We are living in glorious times. (Coronavirus and politics notwithstanding…gimme a break, I’m trying to make a point here.) Look around. Really SEE it. Embrace it. We don’t need a time machine to go back to our glory days. We’re IN our glory days. Just wait. In 20 years, you’ll look back on the 2010s and say, “Man, wasn’t that a time?”
If you take nothing else away from the above review, remember this: Midnight in Paris is pure charm, is laugh-out-loud funny, and is the best Woody Allen film since Match Point. So if you haven’t seen it, you really, really, REALLY need to make a point to do so.