At the beginning of Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Sheltering Sky, John Malkovich, Debra Winger and Campbell Scott have a fascinating conversation about the nuance between being a tourist and being a traveler. The working definition given to us is that a tourist is thinking about going home the minute they arrive, where as the traveler might never return home. Owen Wilson in Midnight In Paris, is the traveler of the film, albeit he wants not only to stay in Paris, but in the 1920s era of the European city (the film is set in 2011), when American writers careened from cocktail party to wine-bar as fuel for their own creative (and lusty) output. His fiance is most definitely the tourist, berating her husband-to-be’s notion of romanticizing the city, and wanting to go back to their consumerist lifestyle back in Malibu. The director, Woody Allen is caught somewhere in the middle. He has the eye of a tourist, in terms of the opening montage that goes perhaps a scene or two too long offering glimpses of cafes and fountains and the Eiffel Tower, but then shifts into a rumination on the nature and dangers of nostalgia that offers an interesting take on his own lengthy career. When you have made 45 or so films spanning 5 decades, I am certainly inclined to listen to what you have to say. But by the halfway mark, I believe Allen has said what he will, and is most inclined to stay in safe, crowd-pleasing kitsch territory that panders to the filmmakers base as much as it exhausts his argument and artistry. I pine for honest surprise of Allen’s breaking of the fourth wall by (literally) dragging Marshall McLuhan into the frame, rather than his facile two dimensional artist cameos on display here. But I am getting ahead of myself.
The story, such that it is, has Hollywood hack-writer, Gil, travelling to Paris with his shrewish fiancee Inez (a wonderfully cast against type, Rachel McAdams – at her most bitchy!) and her republican judgmental parents (more Mimi Kennedy please, she steals every scene she is in.) Gil loves the city, wants to move there in fact, but is really in love with the notion of what the city was like in the F. Scott Fitzgerald days, the Pablo Picasso days, the Ernest Hemingway days when thing were a hotbed of american writers and artists at play. Eventually, after the film tires exhausts the comic potential watching Michael Sheen as a pedantic blow-hard basically seduce Inez right out from under her oblivious fiancee, Gil gets his ‘wish’ of sorts. Climbing into an antique car at midnight in a back alley, he is transported to a version of 1920s Paris where the major writers, filmmakers, painters and collectors of the era all seemingly occupy the same street corner. There he gets to blow smoke up their ass, and have them look at his unfinished novel (set in a nostalgia shop, naturally!) while participating in the gossip and hanky-panky of the day. Marion Cotillard shows up as a writer and socialite (having slept with Matisse, Modigliani and Picasso in that order) who thinks the 20s are not nearly as interesting as the Belle Époque era of the late 19th century with Moulin Rouge and its Can-Can dancers. In an Inception (or Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure) like move, there is a horse and carriage that pulls up in the 1920s and takes Gil (and Cotillard) back to hang out with Edgar Degas and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, who pine for the renaissance. Mercifully, Allen and company stop short of further time travels within time travels, as his point is made startlingly clear: There is interesting stuff happening all the time, take your head out of your ass and look around. The grass is not always greener on the other side of the hill, it just has the advantage of the perspective of time (and the sugar coating of nostalgia.) At one point I was inclined to think that this all is playing out in the goofy (and literal) brain of Gil, but this even goofier thread involving a private investigator (who ends up in the court of Louis XV, don’t ask.) Be that as it may, credit to cinematographer Darius Khondji (The Ninth Gate, My Blueberry Nights, Seven) who maximizes the wet roads and misty alleyways of Paris both present and past.
In summary, I personally think that Allen has covered this ground better, and with a greater degree of subtly and grace, and we don’t have to go as far back as The Purple Rose of Cairo, one has only look at his last picture, the underrated You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger, which admittedly is saddled with a distinctly less romantic contemporary London, but has a lot more interesting characters and story at play. But hey, if you want the facile cuteness of Adrian Body hamming it up as Salvador Dali (Rhino!) or Owen Wilson as the off-the-cuff inspiration for Louis Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel (admittedly chuckle-worthy), that is your, and the Woodman’s, prerogative. The blunt approach in Midnight In Paris fails to fully explore a theme that seems tailor made for this director in favour of easy titillation. Pass the butter.