As if on a toggle, Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris (2011) flips back and forth between standard and wonderful. The wonderful makes the film worth seeing.
In the standard section, set in modern Paris, would-be novelist Gil (Owen Wilson) is on holiday with fiancée Inez (Rachel McAdams). Gil is outnumbered from the start. Inez’s parents make it clear they don’t think he’s good enough for her, and Gil is subjected to patronizing lectures by Inez’s pretentious friend Paul (Michael Sheen).
At a press conference in Cannes – a five-minute excerpt from which is the first bonus feature I can recall appearing on a Woody Allen DVD – McAdams calls Inez “a deliciously direct character. … I tried to pull back on her a little bit, and Owen turned to me and said, ‘It’s so much funnier when you’re mean.’”
That’s being charitable. The whole conflict between loose Gil and impatient Inez plays like Allen on autopilot, a dramatically necessary but unexceptionally written device to set up the more fantastical element of the plot.
It is when Gil walks alone at night on the streets of Paris, and a chauffeured yellow Peugeot pulls up beside him and draws him into the 1920s world of Ernest Hemingway (Corey Stoll) and Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates), that the movie kicks into high gear. Allen’s writing soars, and the actors – including Adrien Brody in mad-genius mode as Salvador Dali – soar with him.
It takes Gil a few minutes to realize that he has travelled in time – that the fellow playing a Cole Porter tune on the piano is Cole Porter, and that Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald don’t just have the same names as the famous author and his wild wife. But before long Gil is asking Hemingway to read his manuscript, and Hemingway is responding in a way one can imagine Hemingway responding. “If it’s bad, I’ll hate it because I hate bad writing. If it’s good, I’ll be envious and hate it all the more. You don’t want the opinion of another writer.”
Gil’s delight in meeting these figures in their prime is contagious. Look, there’s Pablo Picasso. Is that Luis Bunuel saying hello? Hey, that dancer is Josephine Baker. Occasionally, the fun even spills back into the real (that is, present-day) world, as Gil uses inside knowledge he gleaned from Picasso to score a point against Paul – a point that Inez and her coterie predictably fail to award him. Their loss.
ALSO NEW THIS WEEK
Futurama Volume Six (2011) The science-fantasy sitcom from Matt ( The Simpsons) Groening continues to entertain, as hapless delivery boy Fry navigates a future populated by no-nonsense bombshell Leela (voiced by Katey Sagal) and amoral robot Bender. The highlight of the DVD’s (or Blu-ray’s) 13 episodes is Reincarnation, which unfolds in three styles of animation: a black-and-white tribute to the early days of Mickey Mouse and Betty Boop, a pixel-starved replica of early video games, and Japanese anime (with one character, Amy, as Sailor Moon). Expect copious bonuses.
Dolphin Tale (2011) Based on the real tale of a rescued dolphin named Winter, Charles Martin Smith’s drama pairs the injured creature with a young boy who is determined to see the dolphin get a new tail (yes, the title’s a pun). In the bonus features, Morgan Freeman, who plays the prosthetist, offers a spin on the old showbiz advice not to work with children or animals. “It’s hard, I think, to pass up any story that involves a child and a wounded animal.”
Design for Living (1933) Filmed when the ink was still fresh on Noel Coward’s play, this early talkie didn’t lack for talent. Directed by Ernst Lubitsch, adapted by Ben Hecht and starring Fredric March, Gary Cooper and Miriam Hopkins as the points of a Parisian love triangle, the black-and-white comedy is accompanied on the Criterion DVD and Blu-ray by impressive extras: a 1964 British ITV production of Design for Living and the Charles Laughton segment (directed by Lubitsch) from the 1932 comedy If I Had a Million.