Woody Allen delivers for the first time in a long time
The one thing that seems to be describing Woody Allen the auteur in his later years is that he seems to be struggling with his decision to have become a screenwriter. Considering he’s also written a handful of plays and short stories, his past two films seem to be reflecting on an opportunity lost to have written what he perceives to be a great novel. Most of his protagonists over the years have had some facet of being a writer in some form, from journalists to screenwriters and novelists, but none have been as explicit in detailing the struggle of the writer. It’s also come during a moment when his work has fallen considerably in quality.
You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger put Josh Brolin in the typical role that Allen would’ve played 20-30 years, as a struggling writer, and focused on a man who finished medical school to wind up trying to be a successful author. Midnight in Paris goes with a similar jaunt, focusing on a screenwriter who dreams of days gone past and trying to write his own novel. And it represents Woody Allen’s best work since Match Point, which is as backhanded of a compliment as one can give him these days.
Gil (Owen Wilson) would seem to have a charmed life. He has a beautiful fiancée (Rachel McAdams) and a booming career as a Hollywood screenwriter giving him a good life and lifestyle. But he yearns for more, wanting to write his “Great American Novel” and contribute something as opposed to what he considers a hack job writing for film. As they visit Paris with her parents, he dreams of the Paris he yearns to live in with the intelligentsia and authors of American expatriates like Hemingway, et al, in the 1920s.
One night a car magically takes him to this time and he manages to live amongst the great writers of the day. Introduced to F. Scott Fitzgerald (Yom Hiddleston) and his wife Zelda (Alison Pill) at first, and later meeting Ernest Hemingway (Corey Stoll) and Salvador Dali (Adrien Brody) amongst others, Gil finds himself living in two worlds. In the first he’s in a relationship with a woman he loves but not necessarily in the complex, romantic notion of the word. He’s with Inez (McAdams) but it’s hard to see why they’d be together outside of aesthetics. In the past, where he goes to at midnight every night (hence the film’s name), he gets to live amongst his literary idols and pursue a woman (Marion Cotillard) that inspires him as a writer. They work in a way that love, et al, is supposed to. Eventually Gil will have to make a choice; should he stay in the past, where his heart wants, or is living in the present (with all the problems that it entails) still his best possible option.
One gets exactly where Allen is going with this film. Is the past really all that much better than the present? How much do we romanticize it in order to make our current lives feel inadequate? Those big questions Allen wants to tackle, seemingly a referendum on his career. Were all his hits like Bananas and Annie Hall, amongst others, really that good and he’s just slipped? Or has he never been much of a writer/director and now we’re seeing what happens when he isn’t surrounded by exceptional talent like he was during his creative peak in the 1970s and 1980s? Allen uses the motto that the “present is better” as a balance to Gil’s wanting to live in an era he longed for as a child, and as an adult, and Gil represents perhaps the best representation of the type of role he perfect years ago. It’s in the character where we find the film’s quality; Allen’s films are always reliant on a good protagonist to make a good film and Gil does so wonderfully.
One imagines it must be hard to measure up internally to his prior work, considering how lauded he has been in the past in consideration to his shrinking laurels. There is a lot of self doubt from his characters and they tend to reflect how Allen is thinking about his career; it used to be Allen himself, as the neurotic comedic foil, and it helped fuel his films. Played more seriously by different actors through a handful of films, taking on the “Woody Allen Role” of protagonist that Allen played himself for decades, and it begins to feel like Allen trying to work out his feelings towards his career through them. Owen Wilson is given perhaps the best character to take on this self reflection as he shows some genuine acting chops for the first time in a long time.
Taking a page out of his brother Luke’s book by playing it straight and letting the world evolve around him, Owen inspires some comic moments when needed but for the most part keeps film level by maintaining a regular dramatic presence. It’s actually refreshing because most of the actors trying to inhabit the “Woody Allen Role” seem to be trying to do imitations of what Allen would’ve done, like Josh Brolin. Wilson gives a different take on it and doesn’t just imitate how Allen would’ve done it. Allen, in the meanwhile, seems to want to use Paris in the same way he used New York.
Using Paris as a platform for his films in the same way he used New York, Allen never really gets into the heart of the city. He intends for this film to be a travelogue of sorts, celebrating the way Paris used to be and the beauty of it now, but never really goes off the beaten path to show us. Everything he uses and shows is right out of a tourist’s guide to Paris, France. New York City always felt vibrant and alive under Allen because it was his home. He knew where to go and what to show that just didn’t follow a quick internet search about it. With Paris the film feels like a tourist trying to act as if he knows the city; there’s nothing he shows that isn’t accessible to someone with a computer and curiosity.
There seem to be two Woody Allens. There’s the one that we love from nostalgia that we can revisit whenever we want. And then there’s present day Woody Allen, the director we want to be as good as he was in his glory years but can’t quite get there. Midnight in Paris is a step in the right direction, though.
Writer/Director: Woody Allen Notable Cast: Owen Wilson, Rachel McAdams, Corey Stoll, Adrien Brody, Marion Cotillard, Michael Sheen, Alison Pill, Tom Hiddleston