Monday, June 20, 2011

Anything Goes: MIDNIGHT IN PARIS

Note: Many critics have no problem launching into spoiler territory while discussing this film, but I’ll keep it relatively spoiler free here, discussing themes and plot in such a way as to preserve the surprise of utterly splendid paths the movie takes.

Who could have guessed that the most transporting fantasy of the summer would take place in a film that never really leaves the real world? Woody Allen’s latest, his forty-first film, is Midnight in Paris, a wholly enveloping diversion, a pleasantly layered delight. It presents Paris as a city of real magic with an irresistible draw that pulls in anyone on the right wavelength. I must admit that I fell in love with the city myself while on a school trip last year. It’s a city of such beauty, such fine art, and with a clear, direct sense of connection to times gone by, a city that I felt had always resided in my soul, that I found myself nodding with agreement when a character in the film mentions that Paris just might be the hottest spot in the universe.

Allen opens his film with a dreamy tourist’s gaze. He draws his film slowly and patiently into being with a loving sightseeing montage that looks, really looks, at Paris. It’s plain to see why it’s so easy to fall in love with this city, the cobblestone streets, the stunning architecture, and the extraordinary sights around every corner. It’s also easy to see why a self-proclaimed Hollywood hack like Gil Pender (Owen Wilson) would want to use his visit as the perfect opportunity to buckle down and finish his first novel. His fiancé (Rachel McAdams) and her parents (Kurt Fuller and Mimi Kennedy) would rather zip along on a tight schedule to shop and taste wine. They’re not attuned to the magic of their surroundings. “If I see one more charming bistro…” the fiancé grumbles.

Gil’s not like his future in-laws. He lets the city simmer in his psyche. He knows the place has great magic. He reveres the Paris of the 20’s, a time when American artists of all kinds showed up to create masterpieces, and sees himself, the struggling author that he is, as one of a long, continuous line of talents living, partying, and creating during their time as Parisians. Gil is so inspired that one night he leaves his fiancé and her finicky pseudo-intellectual friends (Michael Sheen and Nina Arianda) behind just to wander the city, to get his creative energy sizzling and buzzing. Paris contains such magic in this film that when a car pulls up and partygoers wave at him and ask him to join them not only does he go along, he finds only ever more to delight and surprise him. When he ends up at a party where everyone is dressed in 20’s garb and a man is playing Cole Porter songs at a piano, why, it only seems natural that he’s fallen immediately into the right crowd.

While his increasingly befuddled family resign themselves to letting him wander off to enjoy himself, he gets to mingle with all manner of Parisians. Wilson plays the part of the yearning nostalgic neurotic artist perfectly with the right blend of anxiety and affability. He comes into contact with all sorts of interesting characters, a gruff, manly writer (Corey Stoll), a socialite (Alison Pill) and her author husband (Tom Hiddleston), a gorgeous fashionable muse (Marion Cotillard), a self-absorbed surrealist (Adrien Brody), and a warm, encouraging editor (Kathy Bates), among many others.

This is a love-drunk fan letter to Paris, literature, and art that makes for a casually dense, parable-like tale that’s a warm rebuke and sentimental smirk to nostalgia and a loving embrace of all that makes us human. Here’s a film that falls in love with a city that forever repays that love. Here’s a film that says artists are human, heroes are flawed, and yet can’t creating and experiencing art be a source of endless joy? One simply can’t live in the past, but isn’t it pretty to think so? To create is to look forwards and backwards at once, a tricky prospect. Here Allen has made a film that seems to do just that for him. It pulls together some of his favorite themes (artists, art, relationships) and passions (literature, jazz, history) and repackages them in ways new and surprising, comforting and familiar.

The beauty of the film is that it can be so thoughtful, philosophical even, and yet so utterly transporting, so completely and utterly entertaining that the outside world melts away for a while. It’s the flat out funniest picture Allen’s made in one or two decades. It’s a grand hug of a film that loves France, loves art, loves love and only grows richer the more you are able to catch the historical references. It’s a sort of romantic comedy, but it succeeds by treating the romance as almost a side-thought. It’s an artful, sweet tourist’s fantasy that succeeds by being so matter-of-fact about its movie magic. What a wonderful film! I practically floated out of the theater with the film resonating so deeply and beautifully, filling me with total joy. Living in the present might not always be so beautiful, so we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

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