“Midnight in Paris” film review

There’s a strain of magical realism that runs through the filmography of Woody Allen that pops up – and delightfully so – in his newest film, “Midnight in Paris.”

From “Alice” to “Mighty Aphrodite,” from “Scoop” to “Zelig” and “The Purple Rose of Cairo,” all the way back to his short fiction (particularly “The Kugelmass Episode” in “Side Effects”), Allen has shown a fanciful touch that is part magic, part surrealism, part fantasy. His characters suddenly find their reality shaken by something that seems to be impossible – yet is happening to them.

That was the case of everything from “Alice” and the title character’s ability to disappear to “The Purple Rose of Cairo” (and its delicious switcheroo, with characters moving between the world of a movie onscreen and the real world off the screen).

Now, with “Midnight in Paris,” Allen indulges himself again, this time with a bit of ethereal time travel. And he manages to be poignant and funny at the same time.

The central character is Gil Pender (Owen Wilson, an actor whose oddball affect makes him seem born to say Woody Allen’s dialogue). He’s a successful Hollywood screenwriter who thinks of himself as a hack and who is dying to give it all up to focus on writing a serious novel.

That’s what he talks about with his fiance, Inez (Rachel McAdams), and her parents (Kurt Fuller, Mimi Kennedy) as they tour Paris together. Gil and Inez are the guests of her parents; Gil and Inez aren’t married yet but she’s already shopping for furniture for the house she imagines they’ll own in Malibu.

Gil, however, is dissatisfied with the future that seems laid out for him. He talks about how much he’d like a simple artist’s garret in Paris, where he could live honestly while working on the novel he’s written but isn’t satisfied with. She doesn’t understand what he’s talking about – and pooh-poohs his talk of how great it would have been to live in Paris in the 1920s with the Lost Generation.

He’s even unhappier when she connects with an old professor of hers, Paul (Michael Sheen), an unbearable snob and know-it-all, and his wife (Nina Arianda). They’re suddenly tethered together, with Gil an unwilling audience for Paul’s endless lectures on everything from Versailles to Rodin.

One night, after a wine-tasting, Gil decides not to go dancing with the other three and goes for a walk. A little lost and a little drunk, he sits down on some stairs and hears the cathedral clock chime midnight. Suddenly, a classic automobile – a Roaring ’20s-era limo – pulls up in front of him and its occupants invite him to a party.

At the party, it finally dawns on him that, somehow, he has been transported back to the 1920s – and that his hosts are, in fact, Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald (Alison Pill and Tom Hiddleston, currently on view as Loki in “Thor”). By the end of the evening, he’s also met Ernest Hemingway (Corey Stoll), who talks almost exactly the way he writes.

Gil is smitten; his fiancée, however, thinks he’s insane, that he’s had some sort of breakdown. The next night, Gil goes back to the same spot at the same time – and to his delight, is picked up by the same car. This time, his evening includes not just the Fitzgeralds and Hemingway, but Gertrude Stein, Pablo Picasso – and a gorgeous model who has Picasso flummoxed named Adriana (Marion Cotillard).

The rest of the film deals with Gil juggling his time and attention between Inez and Adriana, between the unsatisfying present and the glorious past. As he discovers, however, the past is great when seen in retrospect – but even 1920s’ Paris seems passé to the people for whom it functions as the present.

To every generation, Allen says, there’s a previous era that looks more glamorous, more glorious, more golden. Nostalgia, as he notes, is a longing for something that didn’t actually exist, that is more imagination than reality. Living in the past ultimately leads you to waste the present.

This is a comedy for thinking people. While the one-liners with contemporary references zip by, the real humor comes with a frame of reference that allows the viewer to understand why Hemingway’s manly prose style is so funny when it’s spoken. You have to understand who these people are and what they mean – which is a daring thing to ask of a modern audience.

As noted, Wilson has a slightly loopy delivery that seems perfectly suited to Allen. His look – a mixture of eagerness and being a little dazed – seems perfect for someone who finds himself rubbing shoulders with his literary idols and making time with a woman who has beguiled Picasso, Hemingway and Fitzgerald.

McAdams has just the right brittleness as the modern woman who has no interest in anyone’s golden age except her own, while Sheen is wonderfully supercilious as the guy who’s willing to step forward to correct anyone about anything, no matter how small. Stoll is blunt and robust as Hemingway, while Kathy Bates makes a wonderfully no-nonsense Gertrude Stein. And look for Adrian Brody in a small but funny turn as Salvador Dali.

“Midnight in Paris” is a comedy for smart people. Allen’s humor prizes cultural literacy, a rarity in these times. It’s magical, in all the right ways.

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