Midnight in Paris
starring Owen Wilson, Rachel McAdams, and Marion Cotillard
directed by Woody Allen
Sometimes it's a good thing to re-state something we all know.
In this film, a gratifyingly intelligent exploration of the yearning we all feel at one time or another, Owen Wilson plays Gil, a somewhat successful "hack Hollywood screenwriter" with literary ambitions and the draft of a first novel. Visiting Paris with his fiancée Inez (Rachel McAdams) and her loathsome parents (Kurt Fuller and Mimi Kennedy), we are immediately struck by the incompatibility of the romantic Gil and the pragmatic Inez. He idolizes jazz-age Paris; she wants a house in Malibu.
Invited to go dancing with a couple from back home, Gil wants instead to walk the mystical streets of the French capital. Inez, though, wants to party, so they go their separate ways that night, and, increasingly, in life. We follow Gil, who gets lost in the dark streets and finds himself swept up by a limousine containing Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald (Tom Hiddleston and the delightful Allison Pill). He becomes, from the stroke of midnight, a part of his idealized life. He meets Hemingway (Corey Stoll), he discusses literature with Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates, an inspired casting choice), he pours out his heart to Salvadore Dalí (Adrien Brody), he encounters all the leading artistic personalities of Paris after the First World War. He even falls in love, with Adriana (Marion Cotillard), a student of haute-couture who is the object of desire for every artist in Paris. She, though, finds jazz-age Paris boring: she wishes she lived in la belle époque, Paris in the 1890s.
The theme of the movie lies not far beneath the surface, but that doesn't matter. In the richness and artistry of Woody Allen's still fertile imagination, it becomes a magical tale: the surreal made real, more real than life itself, until Gil embraces it, and re-makes his own reality. He does what we all wish we could do.
Unfortunately for the rest of us, and as Gil discovers before he returns to the present, the Golden Age ain't all it's cracked up to be. The co-operation of the Parisian authorities and the budget of a major motion picture can make 21st-Century Paris, jazz-age Paris, and belle-époque Paris all look a pretty nice place. But it's just a movie. Watching this film, I recalled the last time I was there, sitting in a sidewalk café and wishing Paris was as beautiful, romantic and charming as it is in this movie. But Paris today, despite the architecture, the money, the culture, the history, is as loud, dirty, crass and impersonal as any modern city, just with nicer shoes. The romance of the place lies in our own hearts, and the romance Gil finds at last on the Pont Neuf, I can find with no great effort on Houston Street or Main Plaza.