Woody Allen movies without Woody Allen in them are more hit or miss than when he’s the lead. My favorites of his – Shadows and Fog, Annie Hall, Love and Death, Bananas, Sleeper, among many others – all have his own true neuroses front and center.
Other character have played the Woody role before, with Larry David taking his turn just prior to Owen Wilson’s Gil in Midnight in Paris. Wilson does a pretty good job, and he’s actually more likable and believable here than in some of his other roles. Still, and despite the fact that he’s getting up there in years, it’s hard for me to watch a Woody-character and not hear, or wish to hear, Woody himself. He’s established himself so well in his earlier films that it’s a disappointment to me when he’s not featured.
This film was pretty hyped, and it’s sentimentality and whimsicality brings it down a slight peg for me. Nothing wrong with those two emotions, but they’re heaped on heavily (too heavily at times) in here. Nonetheless, when the film succeeds it does so overwhelmingly.
Gil and his fiance Inez (Rachel McAdams) are vacationing in Paris with her parents John and Helen (Kurt Fuller and Mimi Kennedy). They don’t really like him. He’s struggling to write a novel after years of monetarily successful but artistically bereft screenplays. He loves the city, she’s ready to go home. Complicating things are an old flame/friend of hers, the hilariously “pedantic gentleman” (according to a Rodin tour-guide) Paul (Michael Sheen), whose diatribes on all things art call to mind Diane Keaton in earlier Woody films.
In a sort of magical realism, which is not a far cry from his efforts in Alice or The Purple Rose of Cairo, Gil finds himself taking an enchanted car ride of sorts night after night and into the past. Here he meets famous artists ranging from Ernest Hemingway to Gertrude Stein to Luis Bunuel to Pablo Picasso. He is inspired, unnerved, and finally freed from the tedium of engaged life and the impending doom of married life.
Sometimes overly-structured writing bugs me. I had a conversation with a friend a little while ago about Tom McCarthy’s Win Win. He loved it, I thought it was good at best. My problem, as with Midnight, is that I can feel the writing. Here’s what I mean:
A bunch of Greeks and screenwriting teachers have told me over the years that films should be divided into three acts. Loosely: in act 1 we get our set-up, meet our characters, and introduce the problem. In act 2, which begins at this introduction, we have rising action, which is a series of trials and errors. Act 2 ends and act 3 begins with the climax. Act 3 continues on until some kind of resolution (or anti-resolution) is met.
Even if a film is out of order (ie Memento) if you rearrange it to be chronological you’ll often find this three-act structure intact.
Further: films are often about 90 pages. 1 page = 1 minute (approximately). Therefore, one act = 30 min/pages.
So back to what I mean by feeling the writing. At about the 30 minute mark a very obvious – which doesn’t mean ill-written – transition occurs right at the introduction of the main problem. At the 60 minute mark a similar thing happens, where the climax segues from minute 60 to 61. It’s neat, it’s textbook, but it’s overly structured and there’s no attempt to hide that. I don’t know that there should be an attempt to hide it, but keeping it so plain feels mechanical.
When Woody is more maniacal, surreal, or straight up funny – he’s not really any in this film – that wooden structure is hidden, or fully disappears underneath a torrent of other skill, wit, and visuals.
That’s problem #1 with Midnight in Paris. Problem #2 is that the trials that Gil goes through are less interesting than the characters. Hemingway (played awesomely by Corey Stoll) is hilarious in his macho-wartime attitude. Dali (Adrien Brody) is flamboyant and loud. These guys are great and a joy to watch, but Gil’s struggle with his writing, his relationship and his obsession with nostalgia don’t demand as much attention…to the point where I just wanted Hemingway to tell another straight-faced tale about charging out of a trench.
That’s not to say there isn’t a lot to like about Midnight in Paris. Woody’s jazzy score, the nighttime wide-shots of the city, and the combination of past and present are fantastic. There’s a bittersweet, and mirrored (with Gil’s fiance) relationship with the always immensely talented Marion Cottilard that’s standout. The ultimate reveal of the authenticity of his “time travel” is also satisfying, and the lessons Gil learns (alert: scriptwriting 101) have a poignant through-line with the problems he has at the beginning.
By all accounts, Midnight in Paris is a good film. It’s a love-letter (not the Frank Booth type) and it’s expertly made. It’s fun, funny, and occasionally moving. It’s just not necessarily memorable.