dir: Woody Allen
Woody Allen… Woody Fucking Allen…
Eh, let’s not go there. Let’s just focus on the fact that there is a film out, and I watched it, and here’s a review of it.
Midnight in Paris doesn’t have Woody Allen in it, so that’s already a plus. The late era renaissance continues for Allen, who is still making films that star famous people, and still get reviewed by people, almost incredulously. It boggles the mind.
Regardless, any film without Allen still has an Allen surrogate in it, and this flick’s surrogate is played by Owen Wilson. He’s a nice enough chap, and nowhere near as neurotic or painful as the usual Allen surrogate.
His problem, and there’s always a problem, is that he’s more focussed on the past than the present. There are probably lots of good reasons for this. The main reason is that his fiancée, Inez (Rachel McAdams) is an awful harridan of a human being, so awful that she’s, like, worse than fifty fucking Hitlers.
Independent of his awful relationship with this person, it seems like being in Paris kindles all sorts of misgivings, regrets, passions and longings within him. It is the City of Lights, after all, with an infamous history, but a lot of it, all the same. As Gil is a writer, naturally his thoughts tend towards both the self-involved and the literary titans of the past who frequented Paris during its many heydays.
And, whodda thunkit? He gets to meet them.
The clock strikes midnight, he gets a bit drunk, and then Gil is hanging out with F. Scott Fitzgerald. Ernest Hemingway and every other non-French famous person you can possibly recall who might have been in Paris in the 1920s.
How? Does it matter? Why? Well, it’s for Gil’s (and our) amusement, and for his journey of discovery. See, Gil needs actors playing Gertrude Stein and Picasso and Dali and Luis Bunuel and Hemingway to convince him that his fiancée is a bitch and that he’s better off living in the present and focussing on the virtues of the present, rather than tripping down nostalgia lane for ever more.
And how does that play out? Well, this is a Woody Allen flick. “Living well in the present” translates to “fuck a woman half Rachel McAdams' age”. Only in a Woody Allen flick made in 2011 would Rachel McAdams play the role of an aged harridan. But, unfortunately, not only in a Woody Allen flick is the ideal of womanhood depicted as a barely out of her teens girl who gazes up adoringly at you and never questions you, what with her general lack of experience and, more importantly, age.
Allen’s obsessions are long known and long lamented, and there aren’t tubes of the internets ample enough to capture all of it. Suffice to say, the fundamental sexism at play in his work and his thinking is very much available here as well, in case you thought you’d be missing out.
It didn’t bug me too much, though, because mostly the flick sucked me in and had me playing the “guess who that’s supposed to be” game. Sure, it’s superficial, and it leads to some very obvious gags (it’s going to be hard to justify the use of the term ‘obvious’ when I explain my favourite gag, but still), but it still managed to be charming when it wasn’t wallowing in those most Allenish of clichés.
There is some good humour in it, and Wilson carries off what could have been a very difficult part. He has to be rudderless, but not completely irritating, and the phenomenon occurring to him needs to have him reacting in a somewhat believable, but not too believable way. And, of course, he has to at least initially find a muse who reminds him what women are for.
At first, she’s a model pursued by all the men whose names you might know, like Modigliani, Picasso and Hemingway, and thus she’s desirable to Gil (especially because she’s not his awful fiancée). But she’s carefree, and giggly and unperturbed by any aspect of reality. Adriana (Marion Cotillard) is everything you’d expect from this kind of role. She’s so winsome and girly that I’m wondering how it is that they couldn’t get Audrey Tatou to play the role, especially since Academy Award Winning Cotillard must be more expensive these days. I hear Audrey is practically giving it away these days, for little more than a nice, salty margarita.
Hemingway (played by Corey Stoll) is probably one of the only other people from the ‘past’ who gets to spend a lot of time yelling about masculinity and such at Gil. It’s not a deep performance, but it’s an enjoyable one. When he bellows his pithy phrases about war, love and fucking at Gil, you know that it’s irrelevant that Gil’s there. Hemingway probably bellowed the same stuff a thousand times at a thousand sycophants and hangers-on. It is funny having him yell this stuff at a person who’s his complete opposite, not just temporally, but personally. It’s the ultimate expression of that ‘what if?’ idea of what would happen if Plato spent time with Johnny Depp (he’d probably try to fuck him) or what if Sir Isaac Newtown could punch Stephen Hawking in the face (they’d probably end up kissing too). The modern sensibility is mocked for its lack of focus on what truly matters (drinking, fucking and fighting, apparently).
The film’s greatest virtue, though, is the reinforcement of the idea that this navalgazing nostalgising is wrong. Even if Gil could spend forever back in the 1920s, and do the world a favour by nipping Stalin and Hitler and Angela Lansbury in the bud, he finally realises that there’s always some other time he’d be romanticising, like the Belle Époque of the 1890s, or Renaissance Italy, or the Dark Ages, or the height of whatever empire’s heyday. He realises this even when the people around him, regardless of their timeline, can’t seem to.
And that redeems the character (and perhaps the film) to some extent, even if the ultimate resolution of the story is somewhat lacking. It’s those moments when Allen through Owen Wilson through Gil is saying that in this cold, dark, mostly empty universe, a City of Light like Paris, which has weathered every storm, is a beacon of humanity. It’s not for political reasons, or because of the art or culture, or Carla Bruni, or the overpriced pastries or because of hot French chicks, though they clearly play a role. It’s a beacon against despair, against the fear of Death that paralyses the soul, and for the assertion of all that’s great and eternal about the great cities.
See, I could enjoy all of this even without buying it. The picture postcard touristy beauty and musical jazz noodlings of Woody Allen for this flick did nothing to convince me that the actual Paris poked through any of the scenes he filmed and edited together. Not for a second do we buy that he’s talking about the place of arrondisement-slums, riots, stabbings and gypsy round-ups. It’s an idea of Paris; the idea of the soul of a city which is as meaningful or meaningless as we choose it to be.
Even then, I still found myself sucked in. I still enjoyed the shots of Paris’s most recognisable landmarks, because they’re wonderful. And seeing these imitators imitate these famous personages of time’s past didn’t bug me either, no matter how simplistically they were rendered, because they were wonderful people, who did some wonderful stuff, and Paris and the world is the better for them having lived and breathed when they did.
What does Allen add to it all? Not much, other than a few minutes where we’re not contemplating our own deaths and the deaths of those we love. Sure, he indulges in the visual equivalent of name dropping to an embarrassing degree, but he did have a hilariously surreal sequence with Gil telling Luis Bunuel what he should do in his next movie, and when he describes what’s essentially the plot of Bunuel’s film The Exterminating Angel, Bunuel doesn’t get it at all, and frankly, thinks it’s stupid.
Now that’s going to delight Joe and Josephine Twelve-Packs in the multiplexes and IMAX theatres from Tuscaloosa to Tianjin, that is, surely?
He (Allen) even namechecks/references his own book of fiction, called Mere Anarchy, by having Hemingway speak a line from the Yeats poem The Second Coming from which he took the name! Is this self-referential inter-textual magic, or just public pseudo-intellectual masturbation?
Who cares, it’s got time travelling in it, after all.
For a Woody Allen flick, it’s good enough. It agreeably killed time even as it mocked the laws of time and space itself. And there was some nice, inoffensive jazz music in it your great grandmother would love; that is, unless it reminds her of when she was a teenager just after the war, and that American GI promised he’d come back and marry her if she gave up the goods for a chocolate bar, and she waited, and she waited, to no avail.
In which case she’d probably hate it, and hate you too, as the physical embodiment and daily reminder of the shame she’s endured all her life, at the hands and other bits of those cruel Americans.
6 barely out of their teens actresses Woody Allen still, still, even now in his 70s, still uses as the archetypal worthwhile woman out of 10
“You can fool me, but you cannot fool Ernest Hemingway!” – few of us could – Midnight in Paris