Monday, June 13, 2011

REVIEW: Midnight in Paris (A-)

(dir. Woody Allen, 2011)

There are many kinds of Woody Allen movies.  There are the good ones and the bad ones.  There are the tough-nosed Manhattan tales and his whimsical fantasies.  His dramas and his comedies.  For a man with such a specific style, he seems to blur such nuanced genres in line with his signature storytelling.  Unfortunately, he hasn't been doing much of that late.

Midnight in Paris is Woody's third European film, following London and Barcelona-based Match Point and Vicky Cristina Barcelona.  When Woody experiments with style, sometimes it can be thrilling (Interiors, Manhattan Murder Mystery) and sometimes it can be awful (The Curse of the Jade Scorpion, Melinda and Melinda) but this fantasy tale so evoked the purity of the Allen form that it was a homerun from the beginning.

Set, obviously, in Paris, this is the story of a successful beat screenwriter (Owen Wilson) trying to fulfill his true potential as a novelist while vacationing with his snotty fiancee (Rachel McAdams, playing the role so well you hate her) and her equally snotty parents.  While there, Wilson falls head over heels for the City of Lights, finding that the purest pleasure from the city isn't material consumption, but rather just seeing the city.  Over and over he states how much wonderful Paris would have been in the 1920s.  It becomes very clear quickly that what McAdams and Wilson have isn't very meaty, which actually prompts Wilson's quest for fulfillment very believable.  One night, while walking the streets of Paris, the midnight clock rings, a 1920s car pulls up and transports him to the world of Paris in the 1920s where he meets artistic icons and one sultry muse.

It's been said that Wilson is the best Allen stand-in since Allen himself, and I tend to agree with that (after having to suffer the indignation of Josh Brolin and the atrocious Larry David), for Wilson understood and exacted the typical nebbish nature of the character Allen has penned.  Though, oddly, this successful Woody Allen film doesn't exactly have a standout performance.  In his career, Allen has been so prolific with writing great roles for actors and specifically actresses.  But in Midnight in Paris, a few bit characters really steal the show.  It's not the apt Wilson, the painfully truthful McAdams, or the perfect Parisian Marion Cottilard.  But rather, it's Alison Pill as Zelda Fitzgerald, Corey Stoll as Ernest Hemingway, and Adrien Brody as Salvador Dalí.

I dare anyone not to sit through Brody's sole scene without splitting a side; his ridiculous commitment to the absurdity of Dalí and his obsession with rhinoceroses is just magnificent.  Pill as the country-bumpkin turned booze maven is a delight, chewing her words and making Zelda just as we'd always imagined her.  Stoll, too, deserves some credit for not exactly having as a comedic a role as the aforementioned two, but still delivering a blisteringly true performance as Hemingway.

Overall, Allen's message in the film is a fine, clear one.  It's nice to see an Allen film not as focused on infidelity or sex as his previous films have been, and he's allowed his truly great story to shine.  It's a small, quiet tale told in fantastic measure, yet with such a profound and grounded conclusion.  I can say without hesitation, that this is Allen's best film in nearly 20 years.  Surely come Oscar time, this film will get at least attention for Allen's superb screenplay.  GRADE: A-


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