Sometimes it feels hard to badmouth Woody Allen at all, even when he's in the creative doldrums. Movies like "Annie Hall," "Manhattan," "Crimes and Misdemeanors," and "Hannah and Her Sisters" aren't just masterpieces, they're benchmarks of American cinema. So when he lets off a largely forgettable trifle, like last year's "You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger," you have to shrug in indifference rather than ball your fists in anger. After all, homeboy gave us "Love and Death."
It's his Herculean work schedule, releasing a movie a year with flabbergasting efficiency, that often lulls you into acceptance, too. If a movie comes out that isn't too hot, you know that in eleven months he'll get a chance to redeem himself. It's this consistency that makes his recent semi-relative masterpieces, like "Match Point" and "Vicky Cristina Barcelona," really pop, since you were just expecting this year's Woody Allen movie.
While "Midnight in Paris," a frothy, loveably charming ode to the City of Lights, doesn't exactly rank among the man's classics, it still an above-average entry in his oeuvre and spritely enough to wake you up (or at the very least let you forget, once and for all, about that movie he did with Larry David a few years ago).
The movie stars Owen Wilson as the Woody surrogate, this time a high-priced screenwriter and script doctor (in the David Koepp mold) named Gil, who is visiting Paris with his fiancé, Inez (a radiant Rachel McAdams) and her family (Kurt Fuller and Mimi Kennedy). Gil is trying to leave Hollywood behind, both literally and metaphorically, embarking on a novel about a man who works in a nostalgia shop while he himself indulges in a nostalgic yearning for a time he wasn't even around for – Paris in the 1920s.
One night after a wine tasting attended by Inez's odious friend (Michael Sheen, per usual stealing every scene he's a part of), Gil decides to take a romantic stroll down the Paris streets as they're draped in velvety midnight. It's here that the movie takes an amazing, fantastical turn that the film's marketers have been wise to avoid divulging, but critics out of Cannes have been freely revealing. We'd really rather not talk about this middle section of the movie, because it's such a shock when it takes place – it's a lightning bolt of a narrative leap – and we'd be happier if you were taken along for the ride, unaware of what's in store. Plus, that means this review will be shorter and (god willing) we can all get on with our day quicker.
It is safe to say that there is some magical realism in effect here which brings to mind another Woody classic, "The Purple Rose of Cairo," or even, to a less effective degree, "Alice" and the short "Oedipus Wrecks" from the "New York Stories" triptych. Gil is compelled to return to his nightly, supernaturally swirly walks around the city and falls in love with a mysterious stranger named Adriana (a smoky Marion Cotillard), forcing him to make some tough choices – fantasy versus reality, Adriana versus Inez, the past versus the present, Paris versus Malibu.
"Midnight in Paris" intoxicates you, and it's hard not to fall under its spell. Part of this is because genius cinematographer Darius Khondji shoots Paris in a singularly gorgeous way – a stream of water trickling down a cobblestone street looks like a delicate ribbon of Christmas lights, with every interior and café cloaked in a dazzling level of visual density sometimes missing from Allen's recent work. The photography is smartly intricate and never showy. But, just the same, it'll take your damn breath away. The film opens with a wordless, music-backed montage of scenes of Paris and you could feel the audience swell; by the time the brief sequence was over, spontaneous applause threatened to break out. It goes to show you that Paris is a profoundly beautiful and photographic city, but it takes a true artist to render it in a way that feels both romantic and unique.
But more than the cinematography, the cast seems really up to the challenge, embracing Allen's lively, loose script. Corey Stoll, Lea Seydoux, Alison Pill, Loki himself Tom Hiddleston, Adrien Brody, and Kathy Bates all show up for brief interludes, but they make the most of their limited screen appearances, and while some of them may be more arch, there's a reason for this, and it ends up contributing to the overall zany atmosphere of the movie, with Wilson providing surprising depth to a character that could have just been about running around and looking at stuff. (It's a particular hoot to see Brody and Wilson together again for the first time since their brotherly bonding in Wes Anderson's "The Darjeeling Limited.")
Some might complain that "Midnight in Paris" is a little too light, too preoccupied with its own post-modern preciousness, to which the rebuttal could be made that his worst recent effort, the dreary "Cassandra's Dream," was also his grimmest. Maybe breezier Woody Allen is the way to go. And if you feel differently, well, there's always next year. [B+]