I should say right off the bat that I’m not nearly as familiar with Woody Allen’s films as I’d like to be. Like everyone, I’ve seen the staples — Annie Hall, Manhattan, Hannah and Her Sisters — but not much beyond that, certainly not enough to make any claim toward “Woody literacy.” In this case I am practically Woody illiterate! More than a few podcasts and articles I’ve caught in the last few months have seemed to go to great pains trying to place his latest, Midnight in Paris, in the filmmaker’s overall creative spectrum. Better than Vicky Cristina Barcelona? Not quite Zelig? (The guy’s made something like three movies a year for the last four decades, so the rearranging here is obviously hard.) I’m not the person to tell you, the Woody expert, where this one fits. But what I CAN tell you is that short of re-watching Toy Story 3, it’s probably the most satisfying movie you’ll see this summer.
There is very little plot you need to understand here: Owen Wilson is a Hollywood screenwriter engaged to beautiful-but-bitchy Rachel McAdams. He pines for what he considers to be gay Paree’s “glory days,” the 1920s, where he might rub elbows with the likes of Papa, Dali, the Fitzgeralds, Gertie and Alice, and Picasso. Then a magical cab takes him there and he does just that. Life is affirmed. Lessons are learned. LE BOOM.
It’s silly — like, short-story silly — but the “just go with it” vibe Woody conjures up here is exactly why people have for the past few months been leaving the theater grinning from ear to ear, and determined for at least 20 minutes afterward to read more Hemingway. There’s no higher purpose to Paris, no grand statement of ART (a route it could have easily, and disastrously, taken at least 20 times). It is simply — wait for it — a GOOD MOVIE, made with a warmth and sincerity that’s apparent from the first frame.
Woody gets the lion’s share of the credit for that, but what really holds this movie together is Owen Wilson. There have been many, many Woody stand-ins over the years who’ve mastered either his a) vocal delivery b) physical mannerisms or c) penchant for professorial blazers, but the impersonation tends to wear thin. Wilson just does WILSON, dawg — reading the awkward, self-conscious lines he was given but with a cadence and delivery that’s all his own. Though in fairness he hasn’t had that many, it’s no stretch to say this is one of his best-ever performances.
You know who else does alright? The ladies. Fantasy Hemingway and Fantasy Dali are great, with era-appropriate facial hair and mental illness, but it’s the women — in all the movie’s time periods — who make Paris acceptable viewing for dragged-along boyfriends. Not to mention a perfect set-up for any “six to midnight” jokes waiting in the wings — look at this lineup!
In descending order that’s 1) the First Lady of France, Carla Bruni 2) still-adorable-even-when-she’s-playing-a-total-harpy Rachel “McMarry Me” McAdams 3) The Most Beautiful Woman in the World, Marion Cotillard and 4) Gertrude Stein, played in the movie by Kathy Bates. (Who is also hot.) And that’s even leaving out Allison Pill as bat-shit Zelda Fitzgerald, who would tear your heart out but leave you wanting more. Sexy, time-displaced ghost women.
Nostalgia has become something of a dirty word around the Lifting Fog offices in recent months. It’s stupid, I’ve argued (we’ll leave Steve out of this), a block on fresh creative expression and something that keeps us tied to the stable past rather than cultivating an uncertain future. Why must we watch 90s Nickelodeon programming (however great) when there’s so much other good new stuff to enjoy? But then this movie, you’ve read, is just DROWNING in nostalgia for a time gone by. It’s Wilson’s central preoccupation, sure, but it’s also the film’s primary allure — how beautiful, how inspiring, to live in a supposedly more enlightened time. Hell, it’s the reason Paris is now Woody’s highest-grossing film! So we arrive at our conundrum: how is embracing the nostalgia of Paris any different than pretending you’re an adult wizard Quidditch player?
This blog wouldn’t be what it is today without a constant stream of ridiculous hypocrisy, so I propose today the following: in popular culture, there’s good nostalgia and there’s bad nostalgia. Bad nostalgia traps us in a vicious whirlpool from which we can’t escape, only spin faster and faster as we near the drain. (Or more simply, watch Catch Me if You Can and Elf on Broadway.) Good nostalgia offers time-tested wisdoms and universal truths that will always feel fresh, ten, 30 or even 90 years later. (or more simply, books and art and shit.) A well reasoned and not-at-all arbitrary resolution to the debate!
But forget all that. Paris is so winning because all Woody and Co. care about is your entertainment, and maybe your getting the chance to show off a liberal arts education you so rarely get to use. (“That’s ALICE B. TOKLAS!” a greying sweater-vest sitting near me whisper-yelled at his wife. “SHE WAS GERTRUDE STEIN’S LESBIAN LOVER.”) Even if you don’t get every expat reference — what, did you go to Amherst? — I’m sure you’ll still find this movie a welcome reprieve from Kill Your Faceformers 5: AHHHHH and a nice night at the movies. It’s like the cinematic equivalent of a great cup of coffee.