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Movie Review: Midnight in Paris (PG-13)


Kernel rating (out of 5): whole-popcorn-kernalwhole-popcorn-kernalwhole-popcorn-kernalwhole-popcorn-kernal
Length: 100 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Age Appropriate for: 15+ because the lack of offensive material, but younger teens may not appreciate the nostalgic themes as much as older viewers.

With ‘Midnight in Paris,’ all hail Woody Allen, king of satisfying sentimentality. If anything will encourage you to forgive his recent missteps, it’s this quietly charming romantic comedy.

By Roxana Hadadi

If I could pick my cinematic family, I would absolutely cast Woody Allen as my bizarre uncle. For the most part, he’d be isolated and weird, married to a much-younger woman (escandalo!) and incapable of producing small talk. During holidays, he’d ignore the rest of us and huddle in a corner listening to old jazz records, occasionally interrupting the conversation to tell some self-deprecating story that no one would want to hear. We’d roll our eyes and think of disappointing films like 2009’s “Whatever Works” and 2006’s “Scoop” as signs that Allen had lost it. The old man’s a legend, but that doesn’t mean he’s always likable.

But sometimes — as aging geniuses occasionally do — he’d surprise us all, gifting us with a truly delightful tale of his younger days, of the appeal of beauty, of the magic of dreams, which would gloriously overshadow the frustration that came before. And that gift for us in the real world is “Midnight in Paris,” Allen’s latest directorial effort. A charming homage to the unforgettable loveliness of Paris combined with a smart recognition of the limits of nostalgia and sentimentality, “Midnight in Paris” is Allen’s best film in years.

It’s successful in its casting, in its fantastic cinematography, in its depiction of some of history’s most impressive literary and artistic figures and in Allen’s steady hand. Too often we’ve seen his male leads as bumbling, neurotic child-men who waver between commitment and freedom, stand-ins for Allen’s own personality and pale mimicries of the role he played in “Annie Hall.” In “Midnight in Paris,” we have a protagonist who grows stronger and more determined with every scene, a man who reflects Allen’s own reliability in helming the film. I never knew Owen Wilson could be so convincing.

Here Wilson stars as Gil, an aspiring novelist-turned-scriptwriter — a “Hollywood hack,” he admits — who pens humorous but forgettable comedies and pockets tons of money doing so. Years ago he had moved to Paris to work on his novels, but fear — of success, of failure — kept him from truly giving everything to the goal. But when he travels to Paris with fianceé Inez (Rachel McAdams) and her parents, the exceedingly wealthy, snobby and right-wing John (Kurt Fuller) and Helen (Mimi Kennedy), his passion for the city is reignited. He loves the city streets, the street markets, the rain falling on pedestrians — and Inez can’t stand it.

It’s clear from the beginning that they’re not on the same wavelength: She wants to shop and cavort in touristy areas with her old crush, obnoxious professor Paul (Michael Sheen), while Gil is more content roaming alone. He works on his novel in secret and won’t let her see any of it; “Do you really want to give it all up just to struggle?” she says in shock when he suggests living in Paris and making another go as a writer. Their schism grows when Gil one night is transported in time back to 1920s Paris, a magical miracle that fulfills every nostalgic fantasy he’s ever had.

There’s F. Scott (Tom Hiddleston) and Zelda (Alison Pill) Fitzgerald, the former calling everyone “old sport” — oh, Jay Gatsby! — and the latter as neurotic and clingy as historians have suggested. There’s also Ernest Hemingway (Corey Stoll) and Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates) and Salvador Dali (Adrien Brody) and Pablo Picasso (Marcial Di Fonzo Bo), and — most mysteriously — the beautiful and sweet Adriana (Marion Cotillard). Involved with Picasso and adored by all men, especially Hemingway, Adriana represents to Gil the promise of a new life, the bravery needed to chase one’s dreams. She’s lovely and kind, and as Gil contrasts her and the roaring ‘20s with the stifling Inez and his boring present, it’s clear he has a choice to make.

Of course we’ve seen time travel before, and of course the theme of a main character yearning for a simpler time (see: “Pleasantville,” “12 Monkeys,” even “Hot Tub Time Machine”) has been beaten to death by Hollywood. But “Midnight in Paris” reinvigorates the concept with fantastic recreations of our most beloved creative figures that effectively deliver the contrast Allen wants between what we think about the past and whether our romanticized version of events really matter. Stoll is especially fantastic as Hemingway, a scruffy and mustachioed rogue who confidently declares “no subject is terrible if the story is true,” warns against getting too close with other writers and frankly critiques Gil as “too self-effacing. It’s not manly.” Wilson is great, too — his dazed look gets more and more severe, more wide-eyed and disbelieving, before finally transforming into transfixed wonder during each time-travel session — and Cotillard, perhaps channeling her performance in “Inception” last year, once again brings the gorgeous and tragic.

“Midnight in Paris” is rated PG-13 and includes cursing, one half-hearted suicide attempt in the form of a woman trying to jump into a body of water, some suggested sexual situations, drinking and lots of cigarette-smoking; there’s one scene at a racy ‘20s nightclub with women dancing around in bikinis, but it’s relatively tame. This wouldn’t be offensive for older teenagers, but it’s tough to say if people in that age group would really appreciate the film’s musings on and yearnings for the past. For parents and older audiences, the message will certainly stick better.

For too long Allen has been stuck in a slump of self-pity and self-doubt, delivering clunky films that flirt with the director’s unique understanding of people and relationships but never fully grasp their inner complexities. “Midnight in Paris,” however, is good enough to make viewers forget that — a love letter to a city that will make audiences love Allen again, too.

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