Sunday, May 29, 2011

Midnight in Paris

I may be jumping the gun here, seeing as how we haven’t even gotten around to June yet, but I’m going to go ahead and say it anyway: Midnight in Paris makes my top five list for the year. Admittedly romanticized, yet brimming with irresistible charm, Woody Allen’s quirky love letter to the city is at once a delightful celebration as well as a cautionary tale of nostalgia—an emotion that the eccentric auteur knows all too well and that, indeed, has informed many of his cinematic creations over the years.

Standing in as Allen’s wistful avatar here is Owen Wilson in the role of Gil, a disillusioned Hollywood writer and aspiring novelist whose dreamy enchantment with his Parisian surroundings is both scoffed at and carelessly dismissed by his callous fiancé, Inez (Rachel McAdams). Their strained relationship is only exacerbated by Inez’s disapproving, anti-French yet ironically bourgeois parents with whom they share their vacation, along with a number of encounters with her insufferably intellectual friend Paul (Michael Sheen) and his wife, who join Inez in pooh-pooh-ing Gil’s reminiscent reveries as “denial of a painful present.” Desperate to cut loose from the pretentious likes of his party, Gil escapes late one evening for a stroll through the city, losing himself in its labyrinth-like streets until the stroke of midnight, when a vintage automobile filled with drunken merrymakers pulls up in front of him. Slightly inebriated himself at this point, Gil is easily convinced to join them and, upon jumping onboard, is casually chauffeured back to 1920s Paris.

Herein begins the real adventure, where Gil stumbles upon a veritable Who’s Who of literary, artistic, and cultural giants of the period. From partying with the Fitzgeralds and Cole Porter to drinking with Ernest Hemingway and receiving writing advice from Gertrude Stein (convincingly portrayed by Kathy Bates), he finds himself living out a Jazz Age version of “Alice in Wonderland”; there’s even a Mad Hatter of sorts in Adrian Brody, who decidedly steals the show with his hilarious rendition of Salvador Dali.* While daybreak lands Gil right back in the miserable company of his reality, he begins to repeat his nighttime walks—much to the bewilderment of Inez—to revisit Stein, who has graciously agreed to read the manuscript of his novel. However, what truly keeps Gil coming back night after night is his enamorement with Adriana (the always-lovely Marion Cotillard), the supposed lover of Picasso (among others) who seems to have taken a liking to him in return. It is Adriana, with whom he shares an innocent yet life-changing liaison, whose own desire to live in a previous time eventually teaches him a thing or two about the futility of idealizing a bygone era, as one's rose-tinted past will always be another’s insipid present.

Though unconventional for a Woody Allen film, the central casting is what stands out as especially noteworthy in this movie. McAdams’ sharp departure from her usually saccharine on and off-screen persona is striking, if not consistently convincing. Bates and Cotillard can always be counted upon to pull off just about anything, but here they take their characters of Stein and Adriana to another level of flair and poise, respectively. Yet, the real surprise is Owen Wilson. For those of us (me included) who have until now doubted his ability to deliver a less-than-totally-obnoxious performance, we can stand happily corrected here. Gil is to Wilson what the glass slipper was to Cinderella; he fits and performs the slightly bumbling, slightly naïve, and totally romantic character to perfection. Particularly endearing is the childlike awe and genuine excitement with which he greets each of his historic heroes, lending an engaging sensitivity to the usual neurosis of Allen’s onscreen representations.

What I really love about this film is that when it comes to technicality, Allen doesn’t bother with excess; rather, he lets the charm of the city speak for itself, as seen in the simply arranged opening montage of Parisian sights in all their enchanting splendor. It’s a time-travel fantasy that doesn’t rely on special effects to draw one in or a fussy scientific explanation for the mechanism by which the transportation is achieved**, proving that it is in fact still possible to enjoy a film without all the frills of CGI, pyrotechnics, or that dreaded 3-D phenomenon that lately seems to be creeping up everywhere.***

I’ve already witnessed some resentment towards the elite, “tourist” view of Paris that MIP presents, but honestly, should one really expect any different from a movie about a starry-eyed, well-off American’s love affair with it? The glorified fancy is actually necessary here in order for the film’s message to succeed, and when it is portrayed so exquisitely by Darius Khondji’s cinematography—from the bright and airy visuals of modern-day Paris to the mesmerizing luminosity of the city in its Golden Age—I hardly think that locals, or anyone else, should begrudge it. Instead, enjoy Midnight in Paris for what it is: a beguiling tale of love, longing, and playful whimsy. A delectable and intoxicating apéritif for the summer movie season.

*Never before has the word “rhinocerous” been so amusing.
**This is by no means an insult to the ever-awesome flux capacitor.
***For instance, someone please explain to me why the Justin Bieber movie necessitated this technology??