Supine on a hotel bed, Inez asks Gil, “Do you really want to give it all up just to struggle?” Yes, he does. And if people like Gil didn’t give it all up, we wouldn’t have movies like Woody Allen’s 41st feature film “Midnight in Paris.” Skeptics like Inez are for the birds.
Gil (Owen Wilson) is a screenwriter who wants to drop out of Hollywood to be a novelist. Like Isaac in Allen’s 1979 film “Manhattan,” Gil is sick of being a hack and sick of all the perks, however lucrative, it has afforded him. He and his fiancee Inez (Rachel McAdams) travel the city of lights, where he is a hopeful romantic and she is a pushy tourist, nothing more than a dilly-dallying dilettante.
“Paris” is a far cry from the simmering worlds of “Match Point” and “Vicky Cristina Barcelona,” his two most satisfying recent efforts. Allen takes the beating heart at the center of his New York films and transplants it into Paris. For Allen, both cities are dreamscapes chock-full of chatty intellectuals and head-cases.
This might be Allen’s most surreal effort since Jeff Daniels walked out of the screen and into the real world in “The Purple Rose of Cairo” (1985). As Gil walks the dizzying streets of Paris at night, an antique car delivers him to the moveable feast of Paris in the ’20s. People are smoking and drinking — heavily. They have those long cigarette holders attributed to Holly Golightly. They even have those little flapper dresses.
Suddenly, Gil is among expatriate writers like Hemingway (Corey Stoll) and Fitzgerald (Tom Hiddleston). Hemingway reads Gil’s novel, about the owner of a nostalgia shop, and passes it onto Gertrude Stein, played by a typically raunchy Kathy Bates.
If this all sounds absurd, it’s because it is. The fantasy moments of “Paris” might be something only an English nerd can appreciate or even understand, like why Djuna Barnes takes the lead when dancing with Gil at one of those bacchanal artists’ parties.
Gil drifts further into this weird world. He saves Zelda Fitzgerald (a winsome Alison Pill) from suicide; he chews the cud with Bunuel and poses for Dali (Adrien Brody). This clown car pile-up of references is quintessential Allen. Watching him have this much fun is like watching a stand-up comic laugh at his own jokes and finally let loose.
Soon, Gil finds a companion for his late night promenades. Sweet-faced Adriana (Marion Cotillard) may be Hemingway’s mistress — and Picasso’s, too, and maybe Braque’s — but she is enchanted by the sheepish, tousle-haired Gil, and she is beautiful enough to make him want to rewrite his entire fate. And Gil knows a thing or two about fate. Through the course of the movie, he finds that whatever time period he’s in, the past is always the past. Living in the moment, which sometimes means suffering the moment, sure beats the singe of nostalgia.
Despite these weighty chestnuts, this is Allen’s giddiest return to form in years. “Midnight in Paris” has the pluck and optimism of ’90s gems like “Mighty Aphrodite”. Like that film, “Paris” is really only about the interactions of two people, and the life — however fleeting — they might be able to make together.
Gil and Adriana are aptly realized by Wilson and Cotillard. Wilson, especially, makes a surprising turn as this year’s Woody Allen surrogate. He is more heart than head, which is unusual for Allen considering his recurring gallery of characters with tightly wound knots of nebbishness and neuroses. Still, Allen could’ve acted the hell out of Gil.
Every reasonably sane cinephile lies awake at night, dreading the day that Woody Allen dies. The man may be 75 years old, but he has not lost his exuberant cinematic spirit. Occasionally, he will dip a little (“You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger”) but we have to forgive him. Allen is hard enough on himself — he believes most of his great films to be minor efforts — so why not let up? Especially when his movies are as irresistibly delightful as this one.