In the 11th hour of his career, Midnight in Paris is precisely what we've come to expect from Woody Allen - another stop in a European capital, another nicely engineered little film more clever than substantial, mildly ruminative if hardly profound, and attractively cast with actors who, much like us, are delighted to venture out on a late date with the old pro. Certainly, his work here feels effortless, and that feather-light touch gives the picture its charm - modest but real.
As in Match Point and Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Woody serves up one more couple on the cusp of marriage and finds tension in that now-familiar battle between security and passion. Gil and Inez (Owen Wilson and Rachel McAdams) are visiting Paris in the company of her very Republican parents. A successful Hollywood screenwriter but a failed novelist, he loves the city and its rich artistic past. She loves herself and shopping. The frustrated Tinseltown hack, the pretty blond narcissist - yes, they're both card-carrying clichés, yet don't fret too much. Midnight has yet to strike.
When it does, Woody digs into his personal yesteryear to replay the magic-realism card he pulled out in Zelig and The Purple Rose of Cairo. Wandering the streets in the late evening, Gil gets beckoned into a vintage Peugeot and whisked back through the decades to his adored "golden age": Paris in the twenties, replete with flappers and philosophers and, wow, Fitzgeralds too. At a Left Bank boîte, there's Scott and zany Zelda and isn't that Papa Hemingway himself, talking just as he writes, so good and clean and true. They all take a shine to Gil, including the ever-avuncular and wise Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates with cropped 'do), who deigns to peruse his work-in-progress and pronounces it full of literary promise. Our hero has found his groove among the Lost Generation and, for us, there's some amusement to be had in sharing Gil's thrills - it's like stepping into a Classic Comics version of A Moveable Feast.
From that point, the movie hopscotches between its competing time-frames. In the past, we get to play spot-the-famous-artiste, while the ensemble has great fun with their typecast cameos - Adrien Brody's take on Dali, for example, is deliciously surreal. But the fun wears a bit thin when Woody, his touch momentarily abandoning him, stoops to jokes that beg a rim-shot. Hemingway: "Have you ever hunted?" Gil: "Only for bargains." Or Gil again to a bespectacled T.S. Eliot: "Where I come from, people measure out their lives in coke spoons." Ba-dum.
Meanwhile, in the present, that relationship with Inez is appearing more brittle by the minute. What's worse, our celebrity-spotting is greatly diminished although, thanks to today's less exacting standards, not entirely absent. Indeed, look closely and you just might glimpse Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, perhaps better known as France's first lady, in a quick turn portraying a tour guide at the Rodin Museum. To the surprise of no one, surely not least of all hubby Nicolas, she makes for a lovely adornment.
Speaking of romance, it may be withering in the here and now but, back in Gertrude's salon, Gil is tumbling hard for Adriana (Marion Cotillard), who, having already slept her way from Braque to Modigliani to Picasso, has fixed her roving gaze on the California kid. This is where Wilson rides to the rescue, injecting an implausible role with lots of wide-eyed ingenuousness along with just the right dash of Woody's classic nebbish. Essentially, he's leading with his nose here - both it and his performance are engagingly bent.
Admittedly, the conceit grows repetitious when the Roaring Twenties further elide into the Belle Epoque, whereupon the slim moral of the piece gets doubly underlined: Seems everyone in any era thinks an earlier age was golden; seems "the present is a little unsatisfying because life is a little unsatisfying." No kidding.
Of course, even back in his own golden age, Woody's pearls of wisdom were rather trite - he was always better at mocking than manufacturing them. Midnight in Paris could do with more mockery, but, for now, that feathery lightness will have to suffice - on life's aesthetic balance sheet, it's definitely a little satisfying.
Midnight in Paris
- Directed and written by Woody Allen
- Starring Owen Wilson, Rachel McAdams, Marion Cotillard
- Classification: PG