the story: A Hollywood screenwriter working on his first book imagines life was idyllic in 1920s Paris, and then somehow ends up there.
what it's all about: Admittedly, my experience with Woody Allen is still shamelessly incomplete, loaded to a generous portion of his recent work while leaving his earlier films mostly unexperienced except for a so-long-ago viewing of Annie Hall that I have no clear memories of it now, but I would have to say Midnight in Paris is one of my favorites, and I think it will stand as one of his signature artistic statements.
Owen Wilson grafts his natural charm to the classic Woody persona of the anxious would-be lover seeking answers to life's questions. I never really get why critics complain about the Woody persona. I loved Kenneth Branagh's take in Celebrity. Technically, Will Ferrell plays it in Melinda and Melinda, although it might be difficult to see as he takes a backseat to Radha Mitchell. You might even say Colin Farrell plays it, in tortured fashion, for Cassandra's Dream. Wilson is such an amiable talent it's sometimes easy to take him for granted (apparently about a decade past he struggled with real despair for perhaps that very reason), but Midnight in Paris owes a huge debt to him. It wouldn't work nearly as well without him accepting the lunatic premise that never really attempts to explain itself, and is all the better for it. Who else could sell it with such casual acceptance?
The show is stolen, however, by a pair of supporting performances, of diverging length. Adrien Brody, who ended up being taken for granted after his Pianist breakthrough, is a hugely amusing Salvador Dali (!), who seems to have stepped out of a Wes Anderson movie, maybe. You can watch the movie for the pleasure of Brody's Dali alone. You can do that, but you'd be missing Corey Stoll's breakthrough performance as Ernest Hemingway, who is basically the exact opposite of Woody Allen. The sheer bravado of it is breathtaking. Stoll, who has continued supporting and television roles since giving us his Hemingway, commands the screen and translates all over again the charm of a writer almost better known for his personality than his prose. But he'll make you want to read the prose, too.
Together, Brodi and Stoll make mincemeat of Michael Sheen's blowhard intellectual, who's so busy trying to impress everyone, including Wilson's would-be bride Rachel McAdams, cast in the classic Allen archetype of the lover who just doesn't understand and doesn't even care to try, that it's kind of tragic for Sheen, and McAdams, because they continually disappoint through no fault of their own, because they can't possibly hope to contend with them. Isn't that kind of the point? Wilson thinks life can't get any better than his romantic notions of the past, and so to have the two most important figures of the present be so utterly charmless in comparison, that's storytelling.
So ironically, Marion Cotillard leads the rest of the cast as the would-be replacement lover Wilson discovers suffers from the same pains he does, only she's from the 1920s and wishes she were some thirty years earlier still...Cotillard is a master of fading into her mysterious beauty (there's a great bit about that and Pablo Picasso in the movie), ethereal, the elusive connective tissue that holds the whole thing together. Toss in Kathy Bates and a pre-Loki Tom Hiddleston, and you have a cast that's rewarding on every level, that knows exactly what it needs to accomplish, and rewards repeated viewings. I mean, Hiddleston in 2011 had Midnight and Thor released within weeks of each other. He plays F. Scott Fitzgerald in Midnight, the first famous face Wilson meets, handily introducing him to Stoll's Hemingway. Hiddleston's scenes are also stolen by a crackerjack portrayal of Zelda Fitzgerald, but watching them again, knowing what was about to bloom for Hiddleston, is to love the quirks of fate.
It's a movie that's ridiculously easy to like, and the more you watch it the more you like it. And it's got a big statement to make, too, about living in the past, and how it's both not as good for you as you might imagine, and that it is as good for you as you might imagine. Wilson undeniably benefits from his experiences, even as his personal life crumbles, and he learns there's a limit to the experience. But then, he also meets a local Parisian, a contemporary who shares the more grounded outlook he cobbles together, or perhaps was always there. I mean, he remains enchanted by Paris itself throughout the movie. Ironically it's Steen and McAdams who keep presenting a warped view of Wilson's fixation on the past. That's another reason Wilson is perfect for this movie, because he's able to let their negativity slide off of him without unneeded drama to further complicate things.
And that's really the spirit of Midnight in Paris, the ability to enjoy itself, say something profound, and move on.