There’s a moment in Radio Days when a young Allen and his parents have a chance encounter with a “Whiz Kid,” one of those freakish adolescents who spend every moment of their day memorizing trivia. Allen’s parents are in awe of the kid’s diction and “intelligence” while to Allen and ourselves he comes off as a stuffy automaton.
That single scene exemplifies the theme of Midnight in Paris: (and I take this line from Tyler Cowen’s excellent summation) “if we somehow managed to meet the cultural titans of previous eras, how many of them would come across as blowhard hacks, if only because their own subsequent work has made their personae obsolete?”
The Allen surrogate is Gil Pender (Owen Wilson), an American Hollywood hack in Paris with his shrewish fiancée Inez (Rachel McAdams) and her disapproving parents John (Kurt Fuller) and Wendy (Mimi Kennedy). Gil, currently engaged in his novel, longs for the Paris of the 1920s and, after a walk one night, meets a cab that whisks him back in time to a party with F. Scott (Tom Hiddleston) and Zelda (Alison Pill) Fitzgerald.
As Gil tries to make sense of his situation, he’s introduced to a roll-call list of ‘20s writers, artists, and all-around people to know, including Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates), Salvador Dali (a hilarious Adrien Brody), and Papa himself, Ernest Hemingway (Corey Stoll). He also meets and falls for the liberated and lovely Adriana (Marion Cotillard), currently Picasso’s squeeze, but Hemingway’s looking to hook her in. As the lure of the past and cracks in his future relationship reveal themselves, Gil’s forced to choose between the two.
Wilson is the same lovable guy he’s always been, though tinged with some characteristically Allen neuroses. He doesn’t play against type, but if you swapped out Rachel McAdams for Diane Keaton and Wilson for Allen, it wouldn’t be very different. Either the performance is incredibly balanced or, more likely, Wilson’s been playing an Allen-type for his entire career and we just never noticed. Nevertheless, he’s a much better fit than either Larry David or Ken Branagh, and, more importantly, it’s fun and easy to watch.
McAdams, Fuller, and Kennedy don’t fare as well, which can be expected because they really don’t have anything to do other than look angry and belittle Gil. If it were filmed from a different perspective, I suspect we’d sympathize with McAdams a bit more, but whenever she and her gang are on screen, it’s cringe inducing (with the exception of Michael Sheen who plays the delightfully pedantic Paul, playing an extension of the character who famously gets dressed down by Marshall McLuhan in Annie Hall).
Fortunately, the majority of the film takes place in the past, which is more interesting anyway. Allen sets himself up for the monumental task of doing justice to each of his notable figures, but the roles are well cast and consistently engaging. As in Radio Days, the cultural icons provide the best scenes, but here Allen gets the opportunity to interact with them, and the result is largely his own (not our) disappointment at every turn. Many of them do come off as blowhard hacks, especially Hemingway, who, again as Cowen notes, becomes the anti-Allen—able to live in the moment, fearless in the face of death, and constantly looking for new ways to demonstrate his manhood.
On a more pedantic note, I don’t read it, as many critics have, as a criticism of nostalgia. For one, Gil seems perfectly happy in the ‘20s just as Adriana would prefer to live in the age of Matisse and Lautrec. Who wouldn’t prefer the certainty of the past to the uncertainty of the future? And that’s why Hemingway is such a good counterpoint; he excels at living in the moment, ignorant of the consequences (and would never attempt science fiction).
But there’s a hint that even though Allen dislikes Hemingway, just as he dislikes Michael Sheen’s character, he acknowledges that they’re often more right than wrong—especially Hemingway—and I think he admires those characters to a degree or at least is jealous of them because they’ve accepted or can ignore many of the issues that have occupied his mind all throughout his career. They don’t dwell on the past, or for that matter the future—whereas Allen here and in Radio Days may acknowledge the harm in doing so, he nevertheless can’t help it.
Finally, this is one of Allen’s most personal films—like many of them (and this is the last time I’ll steal from Cowen), it’s Woody Allen wondering what people think of him, more specifically, what they should think of his work (it’s no coincidence that Gil’s novel is autobiographical and, on a meta level, is based on the film we’re watching).
Just as Gil is able to admire Hemingway’s work while disliking the man himself, Allen seems to be asking us to do the same (and I think the point is made subtly explicit when Allen copies directly from the John Huston, himself a Hemingway-esque personae, film Moulin Rouge). It doesn’t help that Allen’s personae is a trademark of his films, but his larger argument appears to be (whether the medium is science fiction, paint, novels, or films) “look at the art instead of the artist.”
In all, Midnight in Paris, despite whatever message I think it conveys, is a delight. It’s not Allen at his best, but the performances, humor, and sets (I haven’t even mentioned the cinematography) make it well worth the admission.