First, some of my thoughts on Woody Allen…
Woody Allen is one of the few directors I know of for whom the auteur theory doesn’t work in their favor. For those of you who aren’t obsessed with cinema, the auteur theory is an idea first mapped out by Francois Truffaut (who went on to direct Jules and Jim, 400 Blows, Farenheit 451 etc.) which essentially stated that the director is ultimately the author of his film. Everything else is relegated to a role of lesser importance. For example, the auteur theory would say that Hitchcock movies all contain a style and an imprint and a quality that is inimitably Hitchcock, and so no matter who writes the script or stars in it, Hitchcock is Hitchcock. This though also means that Hitchcock’s few duds (Marnie, and I Confess for example) are considered good because Hitchcock is good. The problem is, the auteur theory, in a few instances, can work against the films of a director. Such is the case of Woody Allen.
Speaking for myself, I always make a point to see Woody Allen’s new movies, and out of the 47 films IMDB credits him directing, I’ve only missed three.* While I wouldn’t say that all of his films are great–realistically, a handful are lousy, like Hollywood Ending–I’d say he’s a director I’ve come to expect a certain quality from. For other people, the auteor theory means that they avoid his films with a passion. This owes not to the writing, directing, acting, or casting of his movies, but to the public’s outrage years back when the stories were made known of what happened to end his marriage to Mia Farrow. Scandal-mongers and gossip-hounds triumphed over artistry. A similar spectre still haunts Roman Polanski, except for him the situation’s more extreme.
Here’s where the auteur theory breaks down: movies are, despite it all, about more than the director’s vision. Films are about the music they contain, about the men and women of flesh and blood being filmed, and about all of the people who work diligently in the background. In the case of Woody Allen, he, like Scorsese for example, usually reteams a handful of artists who work offscreen. It’s unfair then for all involved that their film isn’t being seen by a prurient-yet-censorious part of the population just because Woody’s name is attached.
Now the review…
The reason why I included the lengthy prologue above is to say that, in this case, it’s just so unfortunate that people are avoiding Midnight in Paris because of Allen’s reputation. For one, from what I’ve seen, this is the smartest film to come out all year, and it’s especially intelligent for a summer film. Midnight in Paris, this summer, is like the kid at the playground carrying a stack of books who gets pushed over by bullies. Those bullies have names like Hangover 2 and Transformers 3, and the books the kid’s carrying are by F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway.
Out of all of Woody Allen’s films, I’d say this is the one that is most fit for public consumption. Nothing in it is racy or risque, except in a tongue-in-cheek way. It’s humor isn’t too bookish, like it is in Love and Death or Sleeper, nor is it too dark and moody like Deconstructing Harry or Husbands and Wives. It’s a wistful, effervescent little film with a blithe sense of humor. It’s about as witty and light as a song by Cole Porter, who, by the way, is a character in the film.
The story concerns Owen Wilson vacationing in Paris with his bride to be, played by Rachel McAdams, as well as with her rich Waspy parents. Owen Wilson plays a writer at work on his first serious novel after, he thinks, wasting himself on Hollywood screenplays. Originally, I thought Owen Wilson as a writer made about as much sense as John Wayne as a writer, but then, John Wayne did play a credible writer, and Owen Wilson–to my surprise–does too. He’s not a heap of nervous tics and self-destructive habits. He’s just a guy with his head in the clouds like most writers. His hang-up in life is that he inevitably thinks it must have been so much better to live in the 20s, in the legendary expatriate scene (for more on this, read Hemingway’s autobiographical A Moveable Feast, or his thinly veiled autobiography The Sun Also Rises, both of which the film draws on). One night, while wandering along the backstreets of Paris, he gets his wish. A spruced up Model-T styled cab pulls up, some guys holler at him to come in, and next thing he knows, he’s transported back to Paris in the days of wine and literature and surrealist art.
For the next few days, Owen has to contend with his increasingly antagonistic girlfriend, as well as her nosy parents, but also a rival who calls himself his friend, an overly sophisticated man who garners his girlfriend’s attention, played by the great actor Michael Sheen. If you haven’t heard of him, first, no he’s not related to Charlie, and second, try watching some of his movies. He’s particularly good in The Damned United (directed by Tom Hooper, of The King’s Speech fame) and in The Queen, where he plays Tony Blair to perfection. My theory as to why he sports a thick beard in this film is that Woody didn’t want the audience to look at the screen and see Tony Blair mixing in in Paris. Every night though he’s allowed a respite from the banality of his days by being transported again and again back into the Jazz Age.
Once he’s in the past, he is, by happenstance or fate, given the opportunity to meet such venerable artistic luminaries as Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, Luis Bunuel, Salvador Dali, Man Ray and Pablo Picasso, many of whom are played by well known stars, such as Dali played by Adrian Brody (one of his first fun performances in a long time) and Stein played by Kathy Bates. The character who in just about every scene steals the show is Ernest Hemingway played by Corey Stoll, an actor whom I hadn’t heard of before seeing this film. It’s absolutely hysterical when Hemingway speaks because Woody closely models his monologues on Hemingway’s actual prose, so frequently it seems like he’s reciting all of A Farewell to Arms. I’d recommend you quickly brush up on the general history of modernist art before you see the movie, unless you already know who people like Man Ray and Josephine Baker are.
What also makes Midnight in Paris such a phenomenal film is how Woody allows the city itself to play such an enormous role. He very lovingly films the city, and it seems as though he wrote his script specifically to show off the different sides of Paris. I would compare this to how he films Manhattan in Manhattan, or London in Match Point, or Barcelona in Vicky Christina Barcelona. The opening montage of boulevards and cityscapes will have you rubbing your eyes wondering if you’re looking at a photograph or a painting, until you see people moving although at one point, an extra clearly looks at the camera, but I think Woody must have felt the shot was so beautiful, he could stand a little unreality. So too the audience should learn to accept a little unreality and openly enjoy this film.
*I didn’t even realize how many I’d seen until I just checked IMDB.