Sunday, September 4, 2011

Movie Review: Midnight in Paris

Midnight in Paris (2011)
Written & Directed By: Woody Allen
Starring: Owen Wilson, Marion Cotillard, Rachel McAdams, Michael Sheen and Kathy Bates

Over the past 10 years, Woody Allen has released a slew of underwhelming movies that quickly faded from theatres. However, Midnight in Paris is being hailed as a welcome return to form, even moreso than his other most recent success, Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008).

Gil (Owen Wilson) is an L.A. based screenwriter who aspires to be something more than just another Hollywood hack who churns out lame, cash-grab scripts devoid of any real artistic merit. His real passion is for the past -- specifically the 1920s Jazz Age in Paris. When he and his fiancee, Inez (Rachel McAdams) take a trip to the City of Lights on her parents' dime, Gil is inspired to finally finish his novel. Inez, a woman completely devoid of culture who views Paris as nothing more than a shopping expedition, spends more time with her pompous friend Paul (Michael Sheen) than her own fiance. While taking midnight strolls to clear his mind from his worries over his incomplete novel and his clashes with Inez, Gil accidentally embarks on a series of whimsical nightly adventures.

When the clock strikes midnight, Gil is beckoned by iconic figures of the past, all of whom found artistic inspiration on the streets of Paris at some point in their careers.

Johanne Debas and Darius Khondaji's cinematography is breathtaking. Being such a beautiful city by nature, you'd think it couldn't look any more stunning, yet Debas and Khondaji combine their efforts to create a captivating glimpse of Paris in the 1920s.

In keeping with the fantasy of Gil's midnight encounters, Paris is portrayed as Gil would have imagined the 1920s -- all champagne and late night parties; a place without fake intellectuals and nagging fiancees and full of intellectually stimulating conversation and artistic expression. Through his adventures, Gil is finally experiencing his romantic notion of living in another time and place, where only intellectuals and artists roamed the streets.

Allen's script is full of commentary on the folly of nostalgia and the assumption that everything was a whole lot better "back in the day." Gil's fascination with the 1920s and his literary idols veer dangerously close to the point of obsession -- even the main protagonist of his incomplete novel works in a "nostalgia shop." Because he often rejects the idea of living in the present and enjoying his own existence, Gil is forced to come to the realization that every decade had their problems -- and that, at some point, everyone thinks the grass is greener on the other side.

Owen Wilson and Marion Cotillard
The cast more than lives up to Allen's funny, insightful and whimsical script. As Gil, Owen Wilson nails the Woody Allen persona -- all jittery speech patterns and everyday "average joe" personality. Marion Cotillard is wonderful as Adriana, a woman with her own romantic nostalgic pinnings for the past. As Inez, Gil's airy fiancee, Rachel McAdams is the perfect amount of irritating -- you like hating her because she's just so damn good being unlikeable. Ditto Michael Sheen as Inez's arrogant friend, Paul, who fancies himself an expert on every subject under the sun. Sheen is so perfectly aggravating and hilarious that he nearly steals all the scenes that don't take place on Gil's midnight strolls. Without taking away the fun of discovering which famous personas they wind up playing, the rest of the supporting cast is excellent, especially Corey Stoll (as a particularly boisterous American literary icon), Adrien Brody as a quirky painter and Alison Pill as the quick-witted and moody wife of yet another famous literary idol.

With its commentary on art and the inevitable criticism that follows each creation, Allen shows both sides of the impact of art criticism -- as both useful for it what it inspires in both the artist and the audience (such as with Kathy Bates' Gertrude Stein, who helpfully critiques Gil's manuscript) or the danger in how it can sometimes be absent of properly informed historical context (as seen with Sheen's Paul).

Midnight in Paris is a welcome escape from all the summer blockbusters and sequels -- the perfect way to close out the summer and get you thinking about all the upcoming potential Oscar films. Smart, imaginative and hilarious, Woody Allen's latest is his most charming venture in years.