Saturday, November 5, 2011

Born Back Ceaselessly Into the Past

I'm ashamed to say that before Wednesday I had never actually seen a Woody Allen film, no, not even Anne Hall. Given that Midnight in Paris is one of Allen's best received movies in a good while, this puts me in an odd position, unable as I am to comment on the film in the broader context of Allen's body of work as a whole. This certainly doesn't mean it can't be taken on its own, however. It stands on its own quite nicely, as an entertaining look at high culture that often only seems high due to the distancing and romanticizing afforded by the passage of time.

Owen Wilson plays Gil, a Hollywood script hack vacationing in Paris with his fiance Inez (Rachel McAdams) and, high on the city's creative atmosphere, considers leaving showbiz behind to become a serious novelist, starting with his novel about a nostalgia shop owner that he hasn't let anyone read. One night he opts not to go dancing with Inez and her old pedantic douchebag friend Paul and his wife, and instead gets lost, only to be picked up at midnight by F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald and dropped into the literary social scene of the 1920s. Gil begins meeting with his favorite artists and authors every night, which fuels a surge of creativity, and starts to fall for Picasso's "art groupie" Adriana (Marion Cotillard).

Wilson's made a career out of being a goofball, which can make it hard to buy him as artsy writer, but his "gee wiz!" expressions when he actually meets his literary idols work to his advantage. Cotillard makes a good love interest, intelligent and eye-catching. They do most of the heavy lifting, having to compete against the outsized personas of the early 20th century's greatest artists, many of them caricatures based on their reputations and style; Corey Stoll's Ernest Hemingway is heroic, clipped, masculine ("If it's bad, I'll hate it. If it's good, then I'll be envious and hate it even more."). Fitzgerald (Tom Hiddleston) punctuates his dialogue with "old sport," and Adrian Brody's take on Salvador Dali is, well, eccentric.

It's fun stuff, which is the point of a concept that is to an extent playing in a literary sandbox. The film wisely doesn't bother explaining how or why a time warp appears at midnight; it just does, and it's wonderful. But the tone is not exclusively fanboy gushing. As the story goes on the film smartly turns its greatest draw on itself: 'wouldn't it be awesome to go back in the past, which was so much better?' becomes 'was the past really so much better?' It's a good examination of nostalgia and the notion of a Golden Age of anything, which has particular salience after a decade whose pop culture has more and more been defined by cannibalizing the past, whether that be in adaptations of 80s cartoons into movies, Guitar Hero, or Lady Gaga.

This stance does put the film in a strange position, tut-tutting those who would indulge nostalgia even as it depends on nostalgia for its appeal and humor. There's a good laugh had in know-it-all Paul smarmily defining nostalgia as an "erroneous," "rose-tinted" notion, but in the end the movie comes around to saying he was basically right. It's not a fatal problem, more an interesting tension, but a tension all the same.

Aside from a few minor issues (the present-day side plot dealing with Gil and Inez's relationship is subordinate enough that the incredible nature of their woeful mismatching is indeed a minor issue), the movie accomplishes what it sets out to do: provide a breezy literary fantasy for the college-educated, with a little thematic heft. It's middle-brow, maybe, but very accomplished and funny middle-brow all the same.

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