Midnight in Paris feels like it was released forty years ago, when Woody Allen was still finding his way and knew what themes he wanted to address in his films, but hadn’t found a compelling way to address them. Released in 2011, it’s unfortunately more of a reminder that Allen has lost his touch for humanism. This is a guy, for all his nervousness and cynicism, who has made several of the most endearing, empowering humanist visions of the cinema, someone who seems to put on the airs of mockery to satirize a world he’s truly in love with. Or maybe, it’s the other way around. Maybe he is truly cynical and hopeless but remains in love with the idea of humanity and romanticism, feeling the need to put them in all his films even when he finds them dishonest. After all, many of his films are subtle fantasies about love and longing that match bitter, insightful truth with genuine pathos and effervescence pointed strictly at the human race. This is a man who understands the joys and sorrows of life and society, and puts them at work in his films like they are his playthings, all the while feigning a cute passivity and weakness, like he’s both confused and amused at the world and doesn’t want to get away. Perhaps in his old age he’s just given up on society and enjoys the act of getting together with actors in a nice vacation-land for a few months and ordering fine food and wine with a film, his in the making, on the side.
That’s functionally fine – off-the-cuff Woody Allen isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Except of course Midnight in Paris desperately wants to be something more than off-the-cuff. It is, yes, his most openly romantic film in a long time, but it also uneasily attempts to undercut itself with a little of Allen’s trademark sorrow-filled insight. The film eventually reminds us all that the romantic image of the past he presents here is just that, an image, one we are forever blessed and doomed to have and one all people will have of the past. This sounds supremely compelling, if cliché, but unfortunately, the way Allen handles this is so light as to not even render. What’s more, with his main character, who is essentially a less openly neurotic version of Woody Allen played by Owen Wilson, Allen preaches more often than he infuses his ramblings about myth and romance into the film with nuance. He has his main character visit Paris in the present and (surprise) go back in time to the 1920s by the sheer force of the city’s majesty combined with his personal longing for a life long-gone. He meets all manner of famous people like Salvador Dali, Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway, and F. Scott Fitzgerald, in scenes just funny enough to avoid being a case of “guess the character” for people who go to movies for no other reason than to feel smart by knowing the names of famous people long dead. Mostly, however, he meets Adriana (Marion Cotillard), who he falls instantly in love with (as hopeless romantics are wont to do), at which point he pursues her. They have some laughs and everyone learns a little about longing for the past and the eternal artifice of nostalgia…
…with the caveat that it mostly just comes down to a bunch of nice but unexceptional cinematography, some inoffensive chuckles, an excuse for celebrity cameos both of actors and characters, and a few moralistic lines about the nature of fairy tales and nostalgia and how they create an image that can’t be fulfilled and which must by nature distort objective reality. Odd then that this is in what is perhaps Allen’s most openly nostalgic film ever, a true modern fairy tale. Now, many filmmakers can pull this off, embracing something while subtly undermining it. It’s a brilliant trick of the cinema, especially when the undermining is more visual than anything else. If anything, this has been Allen’s forte, although he relies more on scripting than images; he has always been able to capture the nuances of the human experience through a pen of cynical humanism. Sorry, but Allen fails here. We get the sense that the moral is tacked on for superficial depth to what would otherwise be openly, almost grossly romantic. His heart just doesn’t seem in it, probably too busy gushing over the glorious vistas and streets of Paris he essays here. But the problem, a somewhat crippling and fundamental one, is that Allen’s undermining of his filmic romanticism is so superficial it detracts rather than adds – and the film ends up having an identity crisis while wagging its finger at the audience. Curiously, this film reminded me of the recent glut over the past few years of action films which tack on anti-violence messages in the last five or ten minutes. The only joy out of this comparison: the split-second thought of Woody Allen directing an action movie.
If Allen is trying to have his cake and eat it too, at least it’s a pleasant enough confectionary to begin with that it goes down easily, emphasis on the confection. This is a sweet film with humor lighter than a feather. It looks great. But Allen’s fairy tales used to be inseparable from their own realities – his ability to make us fall in love with his cinematic romanticism and understand its falsity were melded. That is what made Allen so special in a medium that often favors one over the other. Here, they’re at odds, and neither aspect is particularly well-handled to begin with. The film stars Owen Wilson doing a passable imitation of Allen, and that’s about what this film feels like. A passable imitation, but not the real thing.