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Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Midnight in Paris

Living in the past, looking to the future

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The opening shots of Midnight in Paris show the scenery of the City of Light from many angles—from the Seine to the Opéra, to umbrella-shaded cafés and stately, tree-lined boulevards. Paris is shown by day and by night, in sunshine and in rain. Writer-director Woody Allen has fallen in love with the city, and so has his stand-in protagonist, Gil.

Owen Wilson has the character down pat, gesturing and speaking like a younger Woody and fully inhabiting the part, dressing for it in Dockers and a thrift-store sport coat. Gil's neuroticism stems from the knowledge that he's a Hollywood hack, but he hopes to redeem his creativity by writing a great novel. The Paris of now is as pretty as a wedding cake in a baker's window, yet Gil is even more besotted by Paris in the Roaring Twenties, when the city was the capital of world culture and every bistro was crowded with artists who painted the modern world in bold strokes and brave words.

Gil is vacationing in Paris with his sexy fiancée, Inez (Rachel McAdams). Hairline cracks between the loving couple are evident from early on and widen as the story moves along. Her disagreeable Republican dad dislikes the French, finding their food too rich and their politics too left—and no one can tell him that the best wine in the world doesn't come from the Napa Valley. Daddy's girl is an interesting study of the contemporary upper class. She's smart but insubstantial; she admires the pedantic intellectualism of her professor friend Paul, whom they bump into by chance, and is discomfited by Gil's creative spirit. She wears her sense of entitlement like a big diamond necklace. She's always in a hurry and never fully engaged in anything except herself. "There's nothing beautiful about walking in the rain," Inez declares. For her, the age of romance is a historical period from a book she once half-read in college.

Gil is entirely opposite. His novel is exactly the sort of thing Allen would write if he retired from filmmaking, a story set in a shop selling trinkets from the 1920s, '30s and '40s and yearning nostalgically for a golden age. Gil loves walking in the rain, especially the damp cobblestones of Paris. And one night as he roams the byways, the cathedral clock strikes midnight and a chauffeured '20s Peugeot pulls up. Its elegantly attired passengers wave him in for champagne and a ride to a party filled with flappers and their beaus. Damn if the pianist playing Cole Porter doesn't look like Cole Porter. Gil blinks when a tipsy woman called Zelda Fitzgerald introduces him to her husband, F. Scott. Gil has accepted a ride through time to the age he loves.

Midnight in Paris
is Allen's wittiest screenplay since The Purple Rose of Cairo and will delight anyone who shares Gil's fascination with Paris when the city was really hot. On his many nocturnal rambles through the '20s, Gil encounters Hemingway, Picasso, Gertrude Stein, Dali, Man Ray and almost anyone who was anyone back then. Only the Surrealists can understand Gil's quandary as a man from the future who falls in love with Picasso's girlfriend, a woman from Gil's past and their present. The characterizations of the great artists are entirely apt and much in the spirit of good fun.

By story's end, Gil realizes that in every period people look back to one golden age or another. The ghosts of the past aren't dead, but beckon us, paradoxically, into the future.
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