Midnight in Paris

October 22, 2011
Film Still, Midnight in Paris
Film Still, Midnight in Paris

Long before Woody Allen was known as a successful movie director, he did stand-up comedy routines. These were collected on an LP record that I recall listening to in my teens. The most memorable sketch was about spending time in Paris with Hemingway and Gertrude Stein. Allen’s latest film, Midnight in Paris, may be seen as a cinematic extension of this old sketch. The difference is that the LP was funny while the movie is a cringe-athon of monumental proportions.

You don’t have to believe me. In fact, I can hardly believe it myself. Before I saw this film I noted that it had received a 93% approval rating on the Rotten Tomatoes site, while sane, seemingly rational people kept telling me how much they’d enjoyed it. As I watched it unfold I began to feel like the only tee-totaller at a drunken party.
To truly appreciate Midnight in Paris it would help if one had seen relatively few Woody Allen films so the gags and characters might seem less hackneyed. It would help if one knew nothing whatsoever about Paris in the 1920s, with its cast of famous American expatriates. It would help if one knew Paris itself only through movies and by repute.

It’s hard to believe there are many people in Allen’s audience who meet these conditions. A typical Woody Allen film is pitched at a literate, cosmopolitan demographic. They have been to Paris, read Hemingway, and have at least heard of Gertrude Stein.

The truly frightening thing is that anyone who meets these criteria could still find this film “charming”. There may never have been a feature more calculated to appeal to the semi-erudite – ie. that large class of people who know just enough about some literary or artistic reference to recognise it and congratulate themselves on their discovery. In the age of Google and Wikipedia, we are all in danger of becoming semi-erudite.

I refuse to believe that Hemingway spoke exactly like the characters in his novels, or that F. Scott Fitzgerald called people “old sport”, just like his most famous creation, Jay Gatsby. These are but two of the “Ah-ha!” moments inserted into a story that is one long chain of cultural allusions thrown together in the most self-indulgent manner.

Midnight in Paris is the story of Gil (Owen Wilson) a Hollywood scriptwriter, on holiday with his fiancée, Inez (Rachel McAdams), and her wealthy, Republican-voting parents. Gil is a romantic, who dreams of moving to Paris and writing novels. His partner and her family are classic American philistines and materialists. There is also Paul (Michael Sheen) a member of that breed of intellectual snobs and pedants who seem to appear in most of Allen’s films.

Escaping from this deadly crew, Gil goes wandering the streets of Paris late at night and finds himself magically transported back to the “Crazy Years” of the 1920s, where he meets all the famous writers and artists he admires. We never learn how this time-travelling occurs, as this is a fairy tale not a mystery story.
He meets Fitzgerald in a bar, then Hemingway. He is taken to visit Gertrude Stein (played by a woefully miscast Kathy Bates), where he runs into Picasso and a fictional girlfriend, Adriana (Marion Cotillard) who will soon become his own new love interest. There’s also Cole Porter, Djuna Barnes, Man Ray, Joséphine Baker, T.S.Eliot… On and on it goes until we begin to wonder: “Has he left anybody out?”

This travesty of a story is fixed inside a frame of pure tourist schmaltz, with languorous shots of all the Parisian attractions. The schmaltz extends to the publicity poster, which features Van Gogh’s Starry Night, a painting that has absolutely nothing to do with Paris. The film is punctuated with brief appearances by well-known actors, such as Adrien Brodie (playing Salvador Dalí!) and a rather wooden cameo by France’s first lady, Carla Bruni, as a guide at the Musée Rodin. Perhaps the only abiding interest is to tot up how many famous writers, artists and latter-day celebrities can be squeezed into a mere 94 minutes.

The script is so lame it is unworthy of Allen, whose writing can be brilliant when he lets go of his usual neuroses. I thought there was only one genuinely witty moment, when Gil runs into Luis Bunuel and suggests the plot of The Exterminating Angel, about a group of people unable to leave a room. “I don’t get it,” says Bunuel, “Why don’t they just leave?”

As this shapeless tale winds towards a conclusion, we realise that Gil’s excursions into the past have given him an insight into how to live in the present. This is a cliché worthy of all the other clichés in this movie.
Midnight in Paris leaves one longing for the gritty, grainy Paris of René Clair, Marcel Carne, Jacques Becker, Julien Duvivier, or a dozen other great French directors. It is a satire of the tourist mentality that gets caught up in a descending spiral of silliness and sentimentality. Despite the accolades it has gathered, this is another self-parody from a director far too prone to such lapses.

Published by the Australian Financial Review, October 22, 2011

USA. Rated PG, 94 minutes.