This isn’t a good Woody Allen movie. No, this is one of the great Woody Allen films. It’s also the best film of the year—at least so far. There isn’t a false note in the entire movie. I sat in the theater from beginning to end as enraptured by the events on the screen as Owen Wilson’s character was by his vision of the city of Paris. Now, it’s worth noting, I suppose, that with the exception of Match Point (2005) and Cassandra’s Dream (2007) (the latter I haven’t seen), I have liked—to one degree or another—all of Allen’s 21st century output. But Midnight in Paris is something else, something different. This is a truly magical work—and not just because magic could be said to be part of its plot.
By now—if you’ve any interest in the film at all—you almost certainly know that the story is about a hack Hollywood screenwriter, Gil (Owen Wilson), who’s in Paris with his fiancee, Inez (Rachel McAdams), and her parents, John (Kurt Fuller) and Helen (Mimi Kennedy). Gil is entanced by the city, as he had been on an earlier visit when he toyed with the idea of staying in Paris and attempting to become a “real writer” like his 1920s idols—Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein etc. And he’s been kicking himself over it ever since. The magic of Paris, however, is lost on Inez and even more lost on her ultra-right wing parents. More intolerable to him still is the unexpected presence of Inez’s friends, Paul (Michael Sheen) and Carol (Nina Arianda). Especially Paul, who is a pontificating bore and self-styled expert on everything and given to spouting off often-incorrect observations on art history.
After one outing too many with Inez and her friends and family, Gil bails out after the first part of the evening, opting to walk back to the hotel and work on his book. Inez tells him not to, because he’ll get lost, which he promptly does—in a way. He finds himself in an old and unfamiliar part of Paris where he has no luck finding anyone who speaks English. Then midnight strikes and a chauffeur-driven 1920s car pulls up. Some Americans inside call to him to go with them, whereupon he finds himself in the company of Scott (Tom Hiddleston) and Zelda Fitzgerald (Alison Pill), who insist on taking Gil to a party at Cole’s. There are no prizes for guessing Cole who. And so begin Gil’s midnight adventures among the greats of Paris’ literary and art set. What happens from there is such an unalloyed delight that I’m saying little about it.
It’s not hard to guess that the concept probably stemmed from some point where Allen himself enthused over some Parisian street at night, saying, “You almost expect the Fitzgeralds on their way to a party to pull up in a car at any moment.” The fact that Owen Wilson is the obvious Woody Allen character in this film makes that origin seem all the more likely. Gil has the same interests and tastes as Allen and a not dissimilar way of expressing himself. It should also be noted that Wilson is easily the best Allen substitute Allen has ever had—something I wasn’t certain would be the case no matter how much I like Wilson in the Wes Anderson movies.
The truth, however, is that everyone in the film is perfect for their roles. All the 1920s celebrities that Gil encounters over the course of the film manage to embody—no matter how fleeting their roles—the sense of the real people as we’ve come to know them. Naturally, this makes the film a case of “the more you know of the 1920s Paris art scene, the more you’ll get out of the film,” but Allen is careful to keep it moving so nicely that the uninitiated aren’t apt to feel out of it. You may not, for instance, get the whole gag when Gil suggests a scenario to surrealist filmmaker Luis Buñuel (Adrien de Van), but you’ll get enough that it won’t leave you baffled.
I haven’t space enough to give this film the praise it deserves, but that might be for the best. Go and see its parade of magic and delights for yourself. That’s the best way. Rated PG-13 for some sexual references and smoking.