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‘Midnight in Paris’ is Woody Allen’s best fantasy/comedy in decades

Midnight in Paris

Written by Woody Allen

Directed by Woody Allen

USA/Spain, 2011

It has been a long while since Woody Allen has been a reliably strong filmmaker in spite of his yearly output of festival fodder. Midnight in Paris remains lightweight and cannot hold a candle to his best work of the last ten years, Vicky Christina Barcelona, but it still stands out as his first successful fantasy/comedy in several decades. The film has its laughs and Allen lovingly brings to life the creative world of the 1920s. At times, empty name-dropping becomes far too central to this universe, occasionally playing into the cringe-worthy elitism espoused by the film’s characters in their least desirable moments. At times this forces us to question the validity of this broken space-time continuum, where cynicism is lovingly broken by moments of inspired wisdom from familiar historical figures.

The film excels when we enter the tortured psyches of the recreated figures of the past, not because of the strength of the overlying message about appreciating the present, which feels ultimately forced and silly, but because it reveals the complexity of the creative process and the seemingly indecipherable ebbs and flows of romantic relationships. Both Gertrude Stein and Ernest Hemingway stand out as being the most fully represented 1920s figures, and are depicted initially as caricatures which fade away as the heart of their craft is revealed. Allen very spiritually pinpoints the core of this era, singling out not Paris or the 1920s in particular as the motivating factor of this highly artistic movement but rather the free-flowing of ideas and the working towards the future. Being guarded and insulated does no good in this world, and it is only through open communication that any of these artists are able to thrive.

This is unfortunately contradicted in the poorly realized recreation of La Belle Epoque, where three of the grandes-artistes of that era are faintly drawn, painted only as mouthpieces for the film’s ideology. In spite of the grand spectacle of the can-can and the candle-lit theatres, there is no magic, and as an audience we can only hold onto Gauguin’s wandering eyes as he seizes up a new female object.

Owen Wilson seems to be the most appropriate Allen stand-in for a very long time. He is neurotic without being particularly awkward or a simple mimicry of the real thing. We understand his motives and are allowed to empathize with him. The film also demands we be critical of his behavior and thought process, despite his status as our hero, because the nature of his evolution necessitates a clear understanding of him as highly flawed. Especially as presented as a romantic rival to Micheal Sheen’s smarmy intellectual, his humility feels genuine and endearing.

The film is successful as an engaging portrait of the creative process, especially as it competes and is similarly grounded by our longing for love and affection. Dream, fantasy or nightmare, they are all brought together by a consistent pursuit of communication with the world around us. As Owen Wilson struggles to find his voice, he is similarly struggling on other fronts, searching for meaning in a seemingly endless sham of an engagement and self-confidence. Midnight in Paris has moments of pure inspiration, some lifted off the pages of the greatest artists of the 20th century, others blissful revelations in the beauty of the human spirit. Allen delivers what is one of his most optimistic films in many years and it is a wonderful love song to one of the greatest cities, eras, and that noblest pursuit of the human spirit.

Justine Smith