Woody Allen's latest film, Midnight in Paris, opens with a visual love letter to the city. Images of the Eiffel Tower, strolls along the Champs-Élysées, close-ups on the Arc de Triomphe which gracefully segue into the glass pyramids of the Louvre -- Allen has thrown in all the iconic imagery that makes Paris as much an ideal as it is a city. It's also clear from the opening that we're headed for one of Allen's lighter works, tonally, though that's no ding on the overall effectiveness. Midnight in Paris is a real treat, a buttery and flaky croissant with a carafe of red wine thrown in to satisfy adult sensibilities.
Owen Wilson, as Gil Pender, embodies the concept that is Paris. He's whimsical, prone to long walks, and desperately seeking to capture the magic and romance of the city. He's a Hollywood screenwriter who dreams of finishing a great novel, to do something of substance, much in the same way that great novelists want to break into screenwriting, to do something of commercial significance. Owen is engaged to Rachel McAdams, and they are visiting Paris while he puts the finishing touches on his novel. She's not exactly supportive, as she thinks struggling to write a novel is silly when screenwriting is so lucrative, though she is looking forward to both their nuptials and starting a life back in Malibu, California. One evening Wilson goes on a solo walk, the clock strikes midnight, an old-timey car approaches him, and he's magically transported back to the roaring '20s in Paris, the "golden age" he's been seeking all along.
The luminaries he runs across are part of what make Midnight in Paris special: F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dali, and many more; he has small moments with each, in-jokes for the literati abound. Hemingway (played by Corey Stoll) in particular is delightful: he's pointed and brusque, but full of courage and honor, much like his masterful prose and the man himself. Wilson takes the whole time travel element in stride, overjoyed at the fact that he's getting to meet his inspirations. It plays out like a fantasy camp for Wilson, with Gertrude Stein offering to read his novel, Dali stopping him for a chat in a bar, Cole Porter tickling the ivory for his listening pleasure. A cornucopia of intellectual enchantment is at his disposal, and he savors every moment. Marion Cotillard plays Adriana, muse to Picasso and Hemingway, the latter of whom asks her, "Do you know what it's like to shoot a charging lion?" Whimsy city, but in a pleasant way.
Meanwhile, back in present day, McAdams becomes increasingly frustrated with his random midnight walkabouts. She begins spending time with a friend she knows in Paris, Paul (Michael Sheen), who is an expert on everything from wine to art. The Sheen-McAdams-Wilson dynamic is fantastic; laughs are plentiful as Sheen keeps upping the intellectual ante on Wilson, a romantic man who just wants to be swept away in the moment. Sheen plays Paul as "that guy," the guy who knows everything, the guy who might be hitting on your girl, the guy who finds the '59 version of the wine a bit too tannin-filled. You know, a jerk, though in this case the pedantic blowhard adds plenty of wry wit to an already clever story.
The dialogue throughout Midnight in Paris is also crisp and packed with levity. At one point Wilson attempts an aside, he hems and haws, before McAdams mercilessly cuts him off with a "That's it? That's the ending to your story?" to which Wilson parries, "That wasn't a story, it was a detail." But the main thrust and cohesion of the film can be found in all the '20s action, an era Wilson visits regularly. The age-old debate of "When is Paris at its most lovely?" is finally settled, and the types of personalities that would and wouldn't walk in the rain are fully parsed. There's also a smallish role for Carla Bruni, she of Sarkozy wifedom, and she acquits herself well.
Sweet, sentimental, and vibrant, Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris rightfully points out that yesterday's frolicking bar might be today's laundry mat ... but we can always visit the good times in our memories. The same could be said of Woody Allen's work in general -- when it's good, it's very good indeed, which is precisely why our cultural memory holds him in such esteem ... and why we choose to visit our favorite moments often and with affection.