Monday, February 27, 2012

100 Movies - No. 58: Midnight in Paris

58. Midnight in Paris (2011)
Comedy, Fantasy, Romance, 94 minutes
Directed by Woody Allen
Starring Owen Wilson, Michael Sheen, Rachel McAdams, Kathy Bates and Marion Cotillard

Woody Allen has directed more than 40 movies and Midnight in Paris is one of his best. It’s a gentle comedy with a strong fantasy element. Like most of Allen’s movies, it relies on good writing and clever dialogue. That writing earned a Best Original Screenplay Oscar and was Allen's first Best Screenplay win since Hannah and Her Sisters won the 1987 Oscar. 

The fantasy element changes the entire feel of the movie, and although it’s revealed early in the story, I don’t want to ruin it for anyone. However, this would be a very short review if I didn't mention it at all. So please be warned that the remainder of the review contains spoilers. If you don’t want to know, it’s time to stop reading.

The story is built around Gil Pender (Wilson), who arrives in Paris with his fiancĂ©e, Inez (McAdams). He’s a writer hoping to find inspiration and she wants to see some of the local sights. The two explore the city with friends, Paul (Sheen) and Carol. Paul claims to be an authority on everything and Gil is annoyed by him, but Inez used to have a crush on Paul and enjoys his company.

One evening, Gil decides that he will take a walk alone to get away from Paul. He’s a little drunk and manages to get lost, and eventually finds himself sitting on some steps at midnight. It’s here that the movie changes tone. A vintage car stops and the people inside urge Gil to get in. They take him to a party and he discovers that Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald are among the guests. He’s surprised at their names, and even more baffled when he’s introduced to Ernest Hemingway (Corey Stoll).

Gil has traveled back into the 1920s.

What would you say to Fitzgerald and Hemingway if you were an aspiring writer? Gil is both astonished and thrilled to be in their presence and mentions that he’s also a writer. The trip to the past isn’t permanent and he wakes up in the present the next morning. Was it just a dream, or was it real? Allen never explains how Gil returns from the past.

He tries to reenact the event the following evening, taking Inez with him, but she leaves before midnight. When the clock strikes, the car appears again and he’s back in the past. He’s introduced to other famous artists, singers and writers, and Gertrude Stein (Bates) critiques his manuscript. Gil seems at home in the 1920s and happier than when he is with Inez in the present. The people seem to understand him better and he fits right in.

The story is filled with interesting encounters. The characters spend a lot of time talking, and Allen’s imagination keeps things more than interesting. I found it quite gripping. I particularly enjoyed the scenes with Hemingway and was reminded of Dan Simmons’ fictional book about him, The Crook Factory. Every encounter with people from 1920s Paris was both charming and intriguing. I found myself imagining how they must have lived, and what it would be like to exist in such a creative environment.

I first saw the film in the theater and members of the audience laughed often and left with smiles on their faces. All of the acting impressed me and Sheen was just about perfect as the insufferable Paul. The story was imaginative and different, and not at all what I expected.

Subsequent viewings on Blu-ray - both alone and with friends - have been just as rewarding. I find that I enjoy visiting this world. It is a magical experience seeing people such as Dali (Brody) and Picasso before they were famous. The setting is perfect, showing the contrast between modern Paris and the city as it was almost a century ago.

Wilson is as good as I have ever seen him in the role that Allen presumably would have played in his youth. I like Wilson’s quirky delivery and his character isn’t too far removed from the one he played in The Darjeeling Limited. Gil enjoys defying expectations and isn’t understood by his friends and potential in-laws.

Midnight in Paris is a rare thing. It's a comedy which relies on intelligence and situations rather than physical humor and shock value. The writing is inventive and clever, and charms you from the start. It's easy to identify with Gil and put yourself in his position.

On a deeper level, the film also examines the things that are important in life. How do you know when you find the right job? What attributes do you find important in a potential partner? If you're not comfortable in your present environment, should you adapt or look for something that suits your true nature?

If you like Midnight in Paris: 

Woody Allen is an acquired taste. Early efforts such as Play it Again Sam and Sleeper are very different to Midnight in Paris and rely on slapstick comedy rather than dialogue. Annie Hall prevented Star Wars from winning the Oscar for Best Picture and offers a combination of Allen's slapstick style and his dialogue-driven movies. It's certainly worth checking out Annie Hall if you like Allen's dialogue.

Allen's recent efforts also have a lot to offer and I would place Vicky Cristina Barcelona just below the level achieved by Midnight in Paris. You can rely on Allen to put together a strong cast and then get the best out of his actors. Vicky Cristina Barcelona earned Penelope Cruz a Best Supporting Actress Oscar, but Rebecca Hall, Javier Bardem and Scarlett Johansson were just as vital to the mix. It's a charming drama with strong romantic elements and shows how much Allen has matured over the past four decades.


  1. Excellent review! I absolutely loved Midnight in Paris! This was my favorite film of 2011.

  2. I wanted to see it again as soon as the credits rolled. I would place it second for 2011, right behind The Descendants.