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Midnight in Paris

Another Woody Allen Trifle

Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars.

Midnight in Paris is a Woody Allen film through and through: comforting in its predictability, sporadically funny, occasionally insightful, and immediately forgettable the moment the house lights go up and you make your way to the exit.

The film centers on Gil Bender (Owen Wilson), a successful Hollywood screenwriter and wannabe novelist. Unfulfilled as a screenwriter, Gil dreams about moving to Paris and working on his novel. His fiancée, Inez (Rachel McAdams), however, has other ideas. Comfortable with Gil’s financial, if not critical, success as a screenwriter, Inez seems content to settle down in Malibu post-marriage and start a family, a decision her politically and culturally conservative parents, John (Kurt Fuller) and Wendy (Mimi Kennedy), in Paris for a business trip, support.

While Inez drags a reticent Gil to museums, shops, and markets, she openly flirts with a former professor (and one-time crush), Paul (Michael Sheen). Paul’s married, but like Gil, his wife seems oblivious to Inez and Paul’s mutual attraction. Gil would rather go for long walks at night, the better to clear his mind, focus on his still unfinished novel and fantasizes about Paris’ Golden Age (the 1920s) and the American writers and artists (among others) who made Paris their home.

The opportunity to meet his literary heroes arrives at the stroke of midnight on one of Gil nightly jaunts: a period luxury car whisks him to 1920s’ Paris. In rapid succession, Gil meets F. Scott Fitzgerald (Tom Hiddleston, Loki in Kenneth Branagh’s Thor), F. Scott’s temperamental wife Zelda (Allison Pill), Ernest Hemingway (Corey Stoll), Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates), Pablo Picasso (Marcial Di Fonzo Bo), and Picasso’s latest muse, Adriana (Marion Cotillard).

Gil unsurprisingly becomes infatuated with Adriana and the idealized past she represents. Adriana, however, longs for another Golden Age: the Belle Époque (Paris in the 1890s). On subsequent nights, Gil rubs shoulders with Salvador Dali (Adrien Brody) and Luis Bunuel (Adrien de Van). On a subsequent night, Gil offers a befuddled Bunuel an idea for a film about a dinner party in which the guests can’t leave, held back by unseen forces (the idea behind Bunuel’s 1962 masterpiece, The Exterminating Angel).

Dependent on a semi-sophisticated audience’s superficial familiarity with The Exterminating Angel, the joke’s meant to make the audience feel clever for recognizing it in the first place. Much of Midnight in Paris’ humor depends on audience recognition of Allen’s cinematic or cultural references, some highbrow, some middlebrow, one or two lowbrow, but never go deeper into insight about the cinema or culture.

That’s not to say Midnight in Paris doesn’t contain the usual assortment of Allen-related pleasures (e.g., wit, humor), only that said pleasures tend toward the shallow and superficial. Shallow and superficial can be used to describe Gil’s character arc from unhappy, neurotic navel-gazer to slightly happier neurotic navel-gazer, as well as the resolution of the present-day, Paris-set story and Gil’s relationship with Inez.

Then again, was anyone expecting more from Midnight in Paris? Allen’s extended European sojourn has taken him to London, Barcelona, and now Paris, primarily to take advantage of his continuing popularity with European audiences versus the continued indifference his films made or released in the United States have met over the last decade-and-a-half.

In his mid-seventies, Allen seems content to churn out one unadventurous, unchallenging film after another as long as producers are willing to finance his films and major and minor talent, American and European, are willing to star or co-star in his films for scale or near-scale. At an age when other filmmakers have retired and/or faded into obscurity, Allen seems content to remain behind the camera, a decision even his remaining fans can (and should) applaud.