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Midnight in Paris


He must be stopped.  I realize that he's old, diminutive and myopic (boy, is he myopic), but don't be fooled. He keeps rampaging through Western Civilization. For decades, he roamed the streets of New York (mainly Manhattan, mind you). It was believed that he couldn't survive out of his native habitat, but then he somehow crossed the Atlantic and was let loose on London and English culture. The results, for the most part, were not pretty. He crashed briefly through the streets of Barcelona. And now, I am sorry to report, he has landed in Paris. And it gets worse. His damage has taken on a new dimension; it's no longer just spatial, it's temporal. Woody Allen is delving into the past to divest long-dead artists - fortunately, he has little concern for anyone else - of their ability to sound even remotely human. If this is allowed to continue, before you know it the Renaissance will be here and everyone will sound completely ridiculous.

So yes, Wood Allen is in Paris.  Actually, like his stand-in, Gil Pender (Owen Wilson), in Midnight in Paris, Woody has returned to The City of Light.  The French capital was one the locations of his 1996 feature, Everyone Says I Love You.  Even with the strange experience of Julia Roberts bursting into song (sort of) and characters taking flight, that film seems vastly more relevant to life on Earth than this latest, lamentable offering from the writer/director.


 Owen Wilson is reunited with Rachel McAdams in Midnight in Paris.  The two enjoyed a fairly endearing courtship in Wedding Crashers.  Here, not so much.   They play a couple on a French vacation with the parents of Inez (McAdams).   He's a Hollywood hack screenwriter and she...well, she likes to shop.  Mr. Wilson does surprisingly well as Allen's stand-in; he's at least given some complexity with which to work.  Ms. McAdams sees her brown hair dyed blonde and is allowed  just enough intelligence to appreciate the brilliance of the men in her life, especially Paul (Michael Sheen) a friend whom the couple meet in a Parisian restaurant.  Paul seems to be an expert on virtually every subject, be it the history and architecture of Versailles, French wine, or the life of Rodin.  He even corrects a tour guide (played by the fairly striking first lady of France, Carla Bruni) lecturing on the sculptor.  "He's a pseudo-intellectual," groans Gil in the couple's hotel room.  This an old battle cry from Allen.  Sheen in his beard looks the ghost of Tony Roberts and seems a composite of blowhard pedants from various Allen films.  The writer/director has become a Dr. Frankenstein, crudely stitching together pieces of his own past creations and coming up with something increasingly, shriekingly inhuman.


Despite the presence of the know-it-all Paul, Gil is besotted with Paris.  He says he can imagine himself walking along the left bank, with a baguette under his arm, stopping in the Cafe Flore to scribble away at this novel.  Really, Gil? Woody?  Guidebooks on London can often be judged by how quickly they trundle out Dr. Johnson's "When a man is tired of London" quote.   Similarly, the originality (or desperate lack thereof) of any book or film about Paris is too often indicated by how soon the old Hemingway chestnut, "Paris is a moveable feast" gets paraded on stage.  Poor Gil doesn't get a half dozen sentences into his first voice-over before the moveable feast allusion creaks out on its rusty axle.  If Gil weren't such a plain, checked-shirt-wearing plain dresser in the Woody Allen mode, there's really no reason that he shouldn't sport a beret through Midnight in Paris.        

Even more than present day Paris, by day or night, come rain or come shine, the amiable lunkhead Gil dreams mainly of Paris of the 1920's, hotbed of many of his artistic heroes.  His dreams come true one night when Inez decides to go dancing with Paul and his wife, while Gil chooses to walk home alone.  He gets lost and finally settles on the stairs in front of a building.  A nearby church bell tolls the midnight hour and a beaut of a Puegot Landaulet rolls to a stop before him.  Some merrymakers insist he join them and off they go.  Where?  To a party raging in 1920's Paris.


Understandably confused, Gil doesn't realize what is taking place at first glance.  But that trim fellow at the piano with the receding hair line singing "Let's Do It," he looks strangely like the composer of the tune himself, Cole Porter.  This suspicion is confirmed by a fellow American, a little spitfire with corkscrew curls from Alabama by the name of Zelda.  In short order, she introduces her husband, a fellow writer, Scott.   What a coincidence, mutters Gil.  "But where am I," he finally has to ask.   It's party for Jean Cocteau, explains Scott.

From here, the name dropping and appearance of artistic heroes of the stunned time traveler (and presumably Woody) follow in profusion.  Gil hops into a convertible with Scott and Zelda, not to mention his new pals, the Porters, and they repair to a bar where pontificating in simple, declarative sentences in a corner booth is none other than Ernest Hemingway.  Allen's re-animated Hemingway sounds like the writer's late-career writing, which is to say a caricature of himself, someone scoring honorable mention in the annual Hemingway sound alike competition.  Occasionally Papa gets to sound something like the human being the writer might have been, but mainly he's a humorless gas bag.  It's difficult to know whether Allen's clumsy script inspired Corey Stoll to play the literary icon for laughs or reverently straight, but it doesn't really work either way.

There are moments in Midnight in Paris when's Allen's flimsy conceit amounts to more than a roll call of great artists uttering leaden dialog amidst some mercifully distracting mise-en-scene.  Most notably, there is Adrian Brody's appearance as Salvador Dali.  This characterization, thanks to Brody and Allen, is an oasis of wit in a desert of reductionism.  Here, genuine laughter, as Brody exclaims as the devilishly-smiling, self-promoting artist, "Dali!"  Salvador is also rather preoccupied with a rhinoceros, as is his wont.  While Pender! and Dali! are having their genial tete a tete, in strolls Man Ray and Luis Buñuel.  The bewildered Gil explains his plight to the very open minded trio and Man Ray thinks it makes perfect sense, this being displaced in time.  "I know, but you're surrealists, " says Gil.  

Dali!  Adrian Brody providing some desperately needed comic relief amidst all the comedy in Midnight in Paris. 
The surrealist joke, while not exactly comedy gold, is unique accomplishment among Allen's dead on arrival attempts at humor in Midnight in Paris.  Adriana points out to Gil that he had been cutting a rug with Djuna Barnes at a party.  "No wonder she wanted to lead!, says Gil.  You see, because Djuna Barnes was bisexual.  Get it!  And when the Landaulet pulls up one evening, the mysterious presence who beckons from the dark interior of the car introduces himself as Thomas Stearns Eliot.  "T.S. Eliot!" exclaims Gil, lest we not make the connection.  Then somewhat faintly as the car pulls off for the 20's, "Where I come from, people measure out their life in coke spoons."  Oh Woody, stop it!  You're killing me!  A drug joke as hilarious as it is timely!  And on his second meeting with the confused-looking Luis Buñuel, Gil tells him, “I’ve got an idea for a movie for you. A bunch of people come to a dinner party but when they try to leave … they can’t.” Buñuel responds,  “I don’t get it. Why can’t they leave?”  There were few murmurs of recognition to Buñuel's name in either of the screenings of the film I attended.  Virtually no one seemed to get the reference to the dinner party scene in his Exterminating Angel.   But that's the beauty of a really lame joke - it's lost on absolutely no one.  The great director for his part is as mystified as the audience, Allen's Buñuel more somnambulist than surrealist.   And lucky him.  

Meanwhile, back in, uh...reality, Gil's wife and in-laws are growing impatient with his behavior.  Inez's parents, John and Helen (Kurt Fuller and Mimi Kennedy) are every bit as recycled as most of the supposedly real 21st-century characters in Midnight in Paris, congealed versions of the more kindly in-laws from Match Point and Vicky Christina Barcelona.   As with those two films, the father is involved in international business.  I'm quite sure that Woody Allen knows as much about international business as I know about folk dancing traditions in the Balkans;  which is to say, nothing.  John makes perfunctory defenses of the tea party while Helen is twice made to squawk, "Cheap is cheap!"  Ms. Kennedy often has the expression of someone beginning what promises to be a long relationship with a kidney stone.  In a sense, these non-characters mark a kind of dire achievement for Woody Allen.  He's taken what is already a broad type of character, the monied, crass American abroad, and somehow made them even more slight.   I'm reminded of a college party I attended that was fueled largely by a keg of Bush Lite.  Bush Lite? I thought. How do you take something that is already without substance and make it make it  lighter still?  Ladies and gentlemen, I give you John and Helen.   

Bush Lite:  Kurt Fuller and Mimi Kennedy in Midnight in Paris
Gil is far too intoxicated with his nocturnal adventures around 1920's Paris to worry about his heinous 2000's family.  Not only is he fairly tripping over every great artist of the time and having his novel read by Gertrude Stein, but he's made the acquaintance of an exceedingly lovely woman, Adriana.  She's the mistress of Picasso, former paramour to both Modigliani and Georges Bracque and pursued by Hemingway.   "You take art groupie to a whole new level!," exclaims Gil.  Well, yes.  The less we say about Woody Allen's treatment of women in his films these days, the better.  Ms. Cotillard manages to animate Adriana into something vaguely real, impressive in that most all the stilted dialog she's given involves some simple-minded appreciation of Gil or his work, bursts of nostalgia, or the anecdote she shares about how she and a roommate once hired a working girl from Pigalle to teach them all of the tricks of her trade.  Cotillard's is one of a handful of respectable turns lost amid the pretty wreckage of Midnight in Paris.  The same can be said for Kathy Bates, presiding grandly as Gertrude Stein.


So, Gil idealizes Paris of the 1920's.  Mais non! says Adriana - it's the Belle Epoque for her.  As the two stroll about some version of Gil's fantasy Paris, a horse drawn coach pulls up near them and, of course, the two are invited aboard.   First stop? - the Fin de siecle Maxim's restaurant of Adriana's dreams.  And how does one follow such a dinner?  Adriana knows just the place - The Moulin Rouge.  This would seem to be the 19th-century equivalent of having your girlfriend suggest an outing to the strip club, but wouldn't we all enjoy a visit to the Moulin Rouge?  Who knows what interesting people we might find!

Amidst all the can-canning at the famously windmilled night spot, Adriana spots a small, solitary figure, rather grave looking in his suit, behind the neatly trimmed beard and eye glasses.  Yes, it's Toulouse-Lautrec.  He looks lonely, thinks Adriana, they should join him.  Of course, the artist bids them sit down, having Marion Cotillard on your arm proving a handy thing in any dimension.  Before much conversation can take place, up strolls Paul Gaughin and Edgar Degas!  The artists in Midnight in Paris, like stereotypical women to the bathroom, move in packs, all the better for identification, if not protection.   In no time, the rather louche-looking Gaughin starts making eyes at Adriana.  Degas seems happy just to be out of the house.

And isn't it wonderful to be in the Belle Epoque?!  Well, actually, Gaughin and Degas think the Italian Renaissance was really the place to be.  Adriana is unconvinced.  When she steps aside with Gil, Adriana states her intention to remain in the 1890's.  Gil responds, "I'm having an insight now.  It's a minor one." Yes, it is a minor one.  Gil has realized that this looking back, this "golden age thinking," as the pompous Paul had declaimed at Versailles, is a trap.  But there was little need to telegraph the point; Allen's threadbare 78 of a theme had already begun to skip on the old victrola.

There's nothing wrong with this Philosophy for Dummies, it's a nice enough message:  fight the strong tug of nostalgia, the tendency to always look back for some golden age - live in the present.  The problem is that Allen's idea of a brave return to reality is having the awful in-laws and shrewish wife conveniently exit stage left, leaving Gil to wander Paris by 21st-century night.  He's not  long alone.  On a bridge over the Seine his first evening as a new bachelor, he encounters the woman, Gabrielle (Lea Seydoux) he had twice met working in an antique stall, a 20-something beauty (most of the humble workers Gil encounters, tour guides and shop attendants, look like they have stepped from the pages of Paris Vogue into slightly more practical clothing; what a city!) who just happens to fancy Cole Porter.  And Gil, of course.  Rain begins to fall on cue, but Gabrielle doesn't mind.  She like Gil, loves to walk in the rain.  Ah, Reality.  Tres, tres bien.    
 

This is execrable stuff in very shiny wrapping paper.  The mere cavalcade of personages amidst the handsome production design has proven enough for most to give a pass to Midnight in Paris.  But simply hearing the names of famous artists uttered and recognizing them does not really constitute an artistic experience or intellectual work.  Nor does their presentation constitute a good film.  It doesn't even amount to good pastiche.   Like the slightly superior Vicky Christina Barcelona, this is little more than a wet dream on the part of the director, no less so because a younger, more handsome actor stands his proxy.   It's a level of self indulgence which should not be encouraged.  

Woody Allen wrote a facetious Vicky Christina Barcelona diary  for the Guardian in 2009.  It  is arguably the most entertaining thing he's done in years.  You can find it here.  To some degree, it's classic Allen schtick, but it also reminds one of a time when, among all the post-vaudeville, there was also wit, intelligence, even a bit of self-awareness in his work.  There's a rare moment of the latter in Midnight in Paris when Gil and the fetching Adriana are strolling around Paris one of his enchanted evenings.  Gil, of course, is beside himself, extolling his very idealized version of the city.  "I keep forgetting you're a tourist," says Adriana.   "That's putting it mildly," admits Gil.  Midnight in Paris won't tell you much more about the French capital than you could learn at Epcot Center.   The only insight it provides on life, nostalgia and the human condition relates mainly to the guy in the horned-rimmed glasses; it's nothing we don't already know.  If Woody Allen wants to be a tourist, that's his business.   But let's not confuse this with art, or even good entertainment.                





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Comments

  1. The Bunuel joke is not about The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. but about The Exterminating Angel. Yes, the film requires a knowledge of cinema and art in general to be understood. Tough luck.

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  2. You are quite right. I confused it with "Discreet," which also has various meal scenes. I've made the correction. Unfortunately, this does nothing to improve Allen's joke. Again, if your idea of humor is any slightly oblique reference to art, film or literature, this sort of thing will be very amusing. I love references in a particular work of art to other works as long as they're not gratuitous. This film does very little with its artistic luminaries and references but simply throw them out so we can admire Mr. Allen's knowledge and congratulate ourselves on our own. Tough luck indeed if you're looking for more than that.

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  3. You have written nothing to convince me that you know how to do anything more take an agricultural swipe at Allen and Midnight in Paris. Think character, think comic characterization: he speaks though characters, gives them limitations, that's part of their and his charm, he sees limitations in them all and us all as well and himself. Isn't that part of the the comic artist's role, to entertain and satirize, parody, and often Allen is very broad in his comedy often parodying himself. Marx bros were great at broad comedy. Allen doesn't try to make his referencing hard for us to follow (well, he doesn't like intellectuals) but he knows his film history very very well and could if he wanted to he could have done it but he knows his audience don't want to be talk down tor patronized. He puts everything out there in their broad range or understanding. Djuna Barnes, not everyone has heard of her. I have, you have but big deal. It's a bread joke. One thing Allen does do now, he repeats his own jokes, citing himself often: very broad jokes made broader and flatter in their appeal. Now you either like or dislike that. I don't mind it. On one specific you mention: The nature of international business, it is a broad sketch, Inez's father an an even broader sketch, played by Kurt Fuller very well too by someone who understands what a comic support support character is meant to be. Why not address the 1920s conceit, ask yourself is it imagination of the writer or time travel? It's true Gil is a little dim, yes, but I suggest it is because Allen knows his Hollywood screenwriters. Ask: Why does Zelda use the word lobotomized? When it seems it first came in to use in 1936. Did he just happen in the shooting, the actress using it and Allen okay let's keep it, or did he plant it for us to ponder? Does it matter in the end? No. We grin we laugh we go where he takes us.

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  4. I'm not sure what an "agricultural swipe" entails; I fear something may have been lost in translation there. But I think I have many quite specific criticisms of Allen and his film. I would love to think about character, but there's not a credible one in this entire film. You give Allen all kind of credit that he does not deserve. But even if we go with your argument that all of these non-characters are meant to be so broad, I would say that there's virtually no entertainment involved for anyone who doesn't find the mere premise of this film priceless. And I did praise the one instance in which Allen's feeble conceit actually worked, the Dali/surrealist segment, thanks for to Allen's writing and Brody's very amusing portrayal. I think you give Allen far to much credit because his tendency to write credible characters in his films in the past twenty years or so has become quite laughable - sadly not in a good way. And what exactly is being parodied here? What satirized? Only the filmmaker, I'm afraid. The international business of the shallow father-in-law is not a sketch, its the product of a lazy writer who's not going to do enough research to render something believable outside his limited worldview; like I said, he took something that was already a cliche, and managed to make it more lifeless. I agree, as I said in the review that it doesn't matter if you know Bunuel or Djuna Barnes, because the jokes are so lame that they're lost on no one.

    One thing I like about Allen is his critical opinion of his own work. He's just keeps trying and hopes to come up with something good. I think even he would agree that you're seeing more in Midnight in Paris than he intended, much as he might appreciate the fact that you grin and laugh and go where it takes you. I can't say the same thing - I'd rather have a root canal partake of these stale goods in a shiny package again.

    p.s., Much as I pretty much gave up on Allen as writer and director with "Midnight," I was quite impressed with Blue Jasmine - not just the usually brilliant Blanchett, but Allen's writing as well.

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