There’s much to praise in Woody Allen’s latest foray into European culture. This is the second of his recent films to ditch his Manhattan heritage in favour of stories about continental Europe, his previous effort being 2008’s sumptuous VICKY CRISTINA BARCELONA, winner of Best Comedy at the Globes.
MIDNIGHT IN PARIS is a similar film in several ways to its predecessor. Both films feature lead actors playing against type – Javier Bardem’s womaniser in VICKY CRISTINA BARCELONA versus a charming and bored-with-life Owen Wilson here – but for my money, the latter puts an even more interesting spin on his role. Wilson here proves himself to be a great understated comedy actor, having been removed from the stifling confines of his usual full-on funny-guy mode. He plays a screenwriter, Gil, coming to terms with the fact that his partner just wants a different life to the one he dreams of. Less great is both films’ clichéd scene-setting; it’s postcard shots and local music all the way. A shame, and one wonders if these quaint sections are there to appeal to an American audience.
…if you’re thinking BACK TO THE FUTURE IN PARIS, you couldn’t be further off the mark…
What the film does superbly is to convey the dreaminess and sense of history that many visitors get when walking round Paris at night. The plot: Gil and family (including fiancés and parents) travel to Paris on holiday, but he quickly finds himself falling in love with the city itself: first by accident, later by design. The reasons for his developing interest are literally surreal. The film uses a time-travel motif whereby each night, a car collects him to take him on a journey to his favorite historical era in Paris, the 1920’s; achieving the goal of many who hark back to earlier times with rose-tinted spectacles. If that all sounds rather silly, well, it is, but the humor is almost always played down.
And if you’re thinking BACK TO THE FUTURE IN PARIS, you couldn’t be further off the mark: though his meetings with Picasso, Hemingway, and Dali are all hysterically funny, they are also surprisingly understated. The film truly comes to life in these scenes, and Wilson’s easy manner carries things through so that we never care how ridiculous it sometimes becomes.
It’s interesting to see old themes re-emerging in Allen’s late career – there are strong similarities here to PURPLE ROSE OF CAIRO, another surreal take on life in the movies – but what’s clear is that, despite a few recent slips, Allen can still write and direct great movies.