Woody Allen’s newest film, Midnight in Paris, is like one of his Without Feathers-era short stories: part-silly, part-profound, and totally reliant on premise. To enjoy the movie, you have to be receptive to its transparently mawkish set-up. But Midnight in Paris shouldn’t exist as a movie; it would be better as a series of SNL sketches. The best vignettes come between bites of bland exposition, which makes the 100-minute film feel like a delicious but perversely protracted prix-fixe dinner.
Owen Wilson (who here, as always, looks like a surfer hit over the head with a frying pan) plays Gil, a successful Hollywood hack who’s intent on getting back to real literature with a novel about a man who works in a nostalgia shop. Rachel McAdams, glowing gold in every scene, plays Inez, his snooty finance. Together, they’re on vacation in Paris with her parents, but Gil is hinting at his desire to relocate there permanently. Inez just wants to go back to Malibu.
One night, Gil demurs an invitation to go dancing with some friends they know from the States. Inez continues on without him, leaving Gil to stumble drunkenly through the winding rues of the Left Bank. Finally, admitting defeat, he resigns himself to some steps. When an out-of-frame clock strikes midnight, a vintage Peugeot pulls up, and the party-goers inside drag Gil along for a ride. They arrive at what turns out to be a party for Jean Cocteau, where Gil meets Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, who later take him to a bar where Ernest Hemingway sits in a corner, speaking of mortality and violence in concise sentences. Hemingway won’t read Gil’s novel, advising him to never ask other writers’ for advice on his work since they’ll be either disdainful or jealous. As consolation though, he promises to pass the manuscript along to Gertrude Stein (played by a salty Kathy Bates). Dazzled and bewildered, Gil returns back to his hotel, inspired to edit his novel.
Each night, Gil returns to the same steps at midnight and is transported back to the Paris of 1920s. He meets and falls in love with Adriana (Marion Cotillard), a waif just as obsessed with the past as he is. Pablo Picasso, Josephine Baker, Man Ray, Alice B. Toklas, T.S. Eliot — they’re all there. It’s the Surrealists, led by a perfect Adrien Brody as Salvador Dalí, to whom Gil finally explains his impossible origin. He couldn’t have picked better confidantes — they take his situation as a complete matter of course. Their brief meeting is one of the most successful scenes: The Surrealists actually interact with the storyline (their perspective makes them sympathetic to time travel) rather serving as an excuse for the successful-but-slight jokes allowed for by the rest of the characters.
While Gil has always mythologized Paris of 1920s as a sort of Golden Age, Adriana is more partial to the Belle Epoque. The moment we learn this about her, warning bells go off. And lo! Our fearful premonitions of yet another nested reality are proven correct. One night, again because of some ignorable cosmic loophole, they’re transported to the Moulin Rouge. Adriana is thrilled. Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Paul Gauguin, and Edgar Degas join their table, and she decides to stay there forever, whereupon Gil has an epiphany — “a minor one” — that sends him finally forward to the present.
To be preoccupied with the mechanics of fictional time travel is a bit doltish, especially for fare like this. That Allen doesn’t bother to tease out the intricacies of the plot — we know how Gil goes back in time (something about the clock) but not how he ever returns to the present; the historical characters never seem to notice Gil’s anachronistic costumes and language — is a relief. Allen is empathizing with his audience — something he can’t always be relied on to do — skipping what we won’t want.
But still, Midnight in Paris adheres to some narrative conventions it doesn’t need. The real pleasure of the film is witnessing all of these artistic geniuses talk in ways that mimic their own work and the biographies we know of them (Hemingway’s morbidity, Picasso’s womanizing). Allen obviously had a blast writing the dialogue (much of it is reminiscent his 1974 New Yorker short story “The Whore of Mensa”), but the packaging he uses is disposable. The past portrayed is glittery and fun, and the present is dry and tedious — problematic, considering Gil’s ultimate decision to return to it and his eventual admission that glorifying history is only ever naïve.