on December 2, 2011
This review may contain minor spoilers...
Woody Allen's 41st film opens with several minutes of exquisite shots of Paris set to Jazz music. Cinematographer Darius Khondji elegantly captures these beautiful sites and effectively sets the tone for the film in which Owen Wilson plays Gil Pender, a Hollywood screenwriter working on his first novel while in Paris with his fiancée Inez. After running into old acquaintances Paul and Carol (Michael Sheen and Nina Arianda), Gil goes on a walk to get away from it all and finds himself transported to the 1920s France, an era that he adores. There, he meets literary and cultural giants such as Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Zelda Fitzgerald, Picasso, Gertrude Stein, and Salvador Dalí, among others. He also meets and becomes fascinated with Adriana (Marion Cotillard), Picasso's mistress, whose ideas about time are in synch with Gil's own.
From the first frame, Midnight in Paris is one of Allen's most charming films in years. I've never seen a Woody Allen film I didn't like and there are only a few I wouldn't bother watching again. The general consensus is that his recent films are weak, especially in comparison to his earlier work. I am of the opinion that he's never made a bad film and each new film he made would be held in higher regard if not for the (many) films that had come before it. Whatever your stance is on Allen's films, both past and present, I think you'll agree that this is one of his best films in years. All of the elements; the casting, the setting, the style, and the story come together perfectly to create a magical romantic-comedy/fantasy. Midnight in Paris has many references to classic literature and film that certain audiences may not catch, but this movie is just so likeable that knowledge of the subjects involved is not necessary to enjoy it. It may cause you to seek it out after the film has ended however, but since when is knowledge a bad thing? It's certainly an accessible film, make no mistake about it, but it's also for a certain audience. If you're the casual moviegoer, you'll find little to dislike about it. If you're part of the audience this is intended for, you'll find almost nothing to dislike about it.
The musical score is so brilliant that it couldn't possibly be original. While many parts of the score are recognizably made of classic jazz music and some Cole Porter songs, I figured the main theme was original; alas, there is no original score for the film. The use of music and the music used is brilliant, as well as essential to the effervescent tone of the film. I can't rave enough about Khondji's cinematography as it truly evokes the beauty of Paris and captures it in exactly the idealized way that Gil sees it. The whole film is beautifully shot, from the first frame to the last. The cinematography is a loving testament to the otherworldly beauty of Paris and the beautiful sites that the camera lovingly lingers on makes the film work almost as a visual tour of the city, but don't think for a minute that this is a bad thing. This is a fantasy film and Khondji makes Paris appear as the ultimate fantasy.
As usual, Allen has assembled a wonderful cast lead by Owen Wilson in the Woody Allen role. Wilson shares some of the same mannerisms and speech patterns we'd expect if Allen played the role, but brings a distinct giddiness that only Wilson can convey. Gil is a memorable, extremely likeable protagonist whose wide-eyed wonder reflected my own. Allen never misses a chance to take jabs at pedantic, pseudo-intellectuals and Michael Sheen plays one perfectly, providing some great back-and-forth banter with Gil. Every actor makes an impression with their characters, with Kurt Fuller and Mimi Kennedy being especially funny and well utilized as Inez's judgmental, materialistic parents. The historical figures throughout the film are given wonderful characterizations, with Corey Stoll turning in a vivacious, poetic performance as Hemingway and Kathy Bates making Gertrude Stein exude warmth and intelligence. Adrien Brody has an inspired cameo as the great surrealist Salvador Dalí and his scene was certainly a highlight ("I see...rhinoceros"). With the First Lady of France, Carla Bruni, making an appearance as well, Allen's strong group of actors are one of the driving forces behind the reason this movie works so well.
Midnight in Paris features some of Allen's best writing years. The characters are well-developed of course, but the story is more inspired than usual. The dialogue is clever and witty (one of my favorite examples being Gil suggesting the plot of The Exterminating Angel to director Luis Buñuel). Allen even takes a moment to take some light-hearted jabs at Tea Party politics. The "earrings scene" meanwhile is the most well-executed comedic scene that Allen has filmed in some time. This is Allen's 41st theatrical film since 1972 and while he's admittedly had some hits and misses, he proves that at the age of 75 he's still capable of churning out a genuinely great film. After making a huge per-theatre average on only six screens, Sony slowly expanded Midnight in Paris and it has consistently remained in the top 10 movies at the box office since. This is a huge feat for a Woody Allen film. Audiences have responded because Allen has made a charming, lovely, whimsical fantasy film that shows Allen at his most accessible and most consistent. With 41 films under his belt it's hard to say where Midnight in Paris fares amongst those other releases, but based on sheer likeability and quality I can safely say it's my favorite film of 2011 thus far.