Cynical world that this is, we often think an artist’s best work is behind them. Woody Allen is not exempt; his golden age is almost universally agreed to be the 1970s, when he balanced riotous sex comedies with touching dramedies. Of course, saying the man reached his pinnacle almost forty years ago does a disservice to his work of the 80s (Zelig, Hannah and Her Sisters), 90s (Husbands and Wives, Bullets over Broadway) and 2000s (Match Point, Vicky Cristina Barcelona), but criticism is a reflective and retrospective game. It’s impossible to imagine future works, and difficult to understand the cultural effect something new will have over the next few years. No matter how great the auteur, we’re hesitant to attribute ‘classic’ status to their latest creation, lest we be made a fool once the dust has settled and time has proven it to be merely a trifle.
This is the struggle faced by reviewers who willingly submit themselves to Allen’s buoyant Midnight in Paris, which is as fun and sumptuous as any picture he’s ever made. It’s also the struggle faced by Allen, who, in the form of his lead character/avatar Gil (Owen Wilson), seems to admit his recent work hasn’t been up to snuff, and whose esteem is crushed by the constant comparisons to past greats. Gil is a hack Hollywood screenwriter who hates his day job, is trying to complete his first novel, and yearns for the days of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway. Whilst on holiday in France with his fiancée (Rachel McAdams) and her tea-party parents (Kurt Fuller and Mimi Kennedy), he wistfully recalls the rose-tinted and roaring ‘20s of his imagination. It was a time when poets, painters, authors, models and filmmakers coalesced in gay Paris to create some of the finest pieces of art in modern history. The closest he thinks he’ll ever get is by writing a book about ‘nostalgia’, and having the meaning of these artistic works relayed to him by his fiancé’s smug former lover (Michael Sheen), who has imposed himself as their tour guide. C’est la vie.
Magic strikes when Gil takes a late night stroll on his lonesome, tipsy on wine and finally free of his buzz-killing family. When the clock strikes twelve, a town car pulls up and escorts him back to the era of his fantasies. Awe-struck Gil is finally confronted by his heroes: F. Scott (Tom Hiddleston) and Zelda Fitzgerald (Alison Pill), Hemingway (Corey Stoll), Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates), Pablo Picasso (Marcial Di Fonzo Bo), Salvador Dali (Adrien Brody) and countless others. Most alluring is muse Adriana (Marion Cotillard), who, like Gil, can’t see the forest for the trees, and is so bored by her present company she yearns to experience the late 19th century; the Belle Époque.
Allen repeatedly deploys the same trick – Gil meets someone, then, upon realising their famous identity, exclaims, ‘You’re so and so?!’ – but it’s an effective one. It could easily have become tiresome; Wilson sells it with his wide-eyed and restrained enthusiasm. He doesn’t mug as Allen’s placeholder, yet he seems a perfect fit to deliver his wonderfully bewildered barbs. Wilson is also aided by supporting performers who never submit to lazy parody of their subjects. Best of all is Stoll as Hemingway, who delivers one of the most charming and peculiar turns of the year.
There is more to Midnight in Paris than idle idol worship. It romanticises the musings of a daydreamer who spends too much time inside their own head (whilst also having the foresight to admit it’s probably not a conducive or productive way to get work done). Beguiling, bewitching, enchanting, enthralling; Woody Allen has offered us a glimpse into his imagination, exorcised some (rather amiable) demons and shared with us one of the frothiest, funniest and most heart-warming films in years. Maybe I’ll be proven wrong in the near future, but it’s hard to care at this moment. Let’s live in the now, just this once.
Midnight in Paris arrives in Australian cinemas October 20, 2011.