I find it both sweet and sad that Woody Allen—who is 76 years old, and has made 40+ films in a 46-year career—is still making movies about the adolescent longing to be an artist. It never goes away, does it?
Midnight in Paris, his latest film, is not really about art, and it's not even really about Paris (although it will make you want to go there). It's about the immature longing for the idealized Paris of the 1920s: the fantasy of the expatriate, modernist mecca of Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Gertrude Stein (all of whom appear in the film). It's about that feeling that there was once a golden age when people really knew how to live, of which our sad modern age is just a pale imitation.
Gil (Owen Wilson—the latest Woody stand-in) has come to Paris with his thoroughly modern fiancée Inez (Rachel McAdams) and her philistine parents (Kurt Fuller and Mimi Kennedy). A successful Hollywood screenwriter, Gil longs to be a novelist, and—to his fiancée's horror—still harbors fantasies of moving to Paris to write and suffer in a garret on the Left Bank. One night, while Inez is off dancing with an unctuous and pedantic old friend (Michael Sheen), Gil wanders the Paris streets, and accepts a ride with some anachronistic partiers who end up taking him on a little time-traveling trip to the 1920s. (Wisely, no explanation for this is sought or given.)
Midnight in Paris has its charms: for one thing, it's the perfect kind of story—if not perfectly realized—for an American to tell about Paris. Whenever I'm there I wonder if the Parisians can possibly see their city the way we do: to an outsider, the streets of Paris are paved with time and peopled by the ghosts of the past. Unlike other modern European cities—Rome, for example—Paris does not seem as though its great history is preserved and protected in discrete tourist zones. History in Paris is alive and seamlessly woven into the modern metropolis: all of the city's eras seem to coexist simultaneously, and one would not be entirely surprised to turn a corner and find oneself in another time.
That's a shallow observation, perhaps, but Midnight in Paris is a shallow movie, a trifling wish-fulfillment fantasy. Gil meets many of the major literary and artistic figures of the era: he parties with Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald (Tom Hiddleston and Alison Pill); he gets writing advice from Hemingway (Corey Stoll, a strong screen presence) and Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates); and he explains his conundrum to Salvador Dali (Adrian Brody), Man Ray (Tom Cordier) and Luis Buñuel (Adrien de Van), who accept the idea of time travel with casual nonchalance. ("But you're surrealists," Gil says. "I'm a regular guy.") At Gertrude and Alice's place, he becomes smitten with idealized flapper Adriana (Marion Cotillard), the muse and mistress of Modigliani, Braque, Picasso, and Hemingway, among others.
It's all fun, but it's all as light as air. Gil has few meaningful interactions with the historical figures, and Allen doesn't really have anything insightful to say about any of them: they all turn out to be exactly like their thin legends, which I suppose is the point of the fantasy. (Hemingway talks tough about war, Scott and Zelda have marital spats, Stein offers sage advice on art, Cole Porter sings, Josephine Baker dances.) It's all as deep as a college sophomore's fantasy, and no more honest or insightful than a wax museum: it's the Disney World Hall of Modernists.
The daytime story in modern Paris is no more weighty: Inez is yet another of Allen's thinly written female foils, the cardboard shrew so thoroughly unlikable that her inevitable rejection carries no emotional weight at all. (Allen—who certainly knew once—has long forgotten how to write a believable relationship, or else he just doesn't bother anymore.) Gil's flirtation with a beautiful French girl (Léa Seydoux) is more understandable, but no more developed.
The point of all of this seems to be that we all may long for the fantasy of another time, but we each have to live in our own era. (Adriana, for example, is living in Gil's fantasy time, but she herself longs for La Belle Époque of thirty years earlier: to her, the turn of the century is when things were really happening in Paris.) It's a nice enough point to make, but, since it's the only one Allen is making, Midnight in Paris feels like it could have been a short-film, a minor flight of fancy.
I probably sound like I'm more down on Midnight in Paris than I really am: it's a light, harmless-enough fantasy, with some enjoyable moments and some spectacular shots of my favorite city on earth. (There are still few directors who can capture a place like Allen, and my favorite speech from the film is when Gil wonders aloud if any single work of art will ever compete with the beauty of a city.)
I suppose I myself am just futilely longing for times gone by, and wishing I could go back to the fading days when Woody Allen had more on his mind than this kind of wispy, whimsical confection. For me, the Golden Age of Woody was the roughly 10-year period that began with 1985's The Purple Rose of Cairo and ended somewhere around Bullets Over Broadway. (Those two movies, for example, were both light fantasies, but each of them was funnier, and had more to say, than Midnight in Paris.) For that belle époque—which included Hannah and Her Sisters, Crimes and Misdemeanors, and Husbands and Wives, among many others—Woody Allen was an artist, and now he just seems to be longing wistfully for real art without having sufficient energy or interest to create it himself.