Stuck in a rut 

Time travel can't save Midnight in Paris

Erika the Arts Editor (ETAE) thought briefly about sending me to Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 last weekend, but after informing her that I've yet to read one line of the books or see a minute of the previous seven films, we thought better of it. The potential was there for humor in a newbie watching the final movie without a shred of context, but true Potter fans probably deserve better than a wiseass reviewer making lame jokes about wizards and ... well, whatever else is a part of that world.

This decision is only relevant because I ended up watching Woody Allen's latest project, Midnight in Paris, and the truth is that I am nearly as unversed in the ways of Allen as I am in the ways of Potter. I've seen less than a handful of Allen films—and none since 2005's Match Point—a fact that won't endear me to the prolific director's cult of zealous devotees.

Woody Allen aficionados are much like Little League parents (So what if you struck out four times and made two errors? You gave more effort than anyone else out there today!). This is particularly true of the baby boomers who came of age in the 1970s and continue to worship the city sidewalks on which Allen's films stroll, seemingly in denial over the notion that if you average a film per year for over four decades, there's going to be some stinkers.

click to enlarge “So that’s how they make french fries.”
  • “So that’s how they make french fries.”

And so I hope that in explaining why Midnight in Paris is such a mediocre mess of a film I can help to wipe the rosy tint from the spectacles of those fans that would rather not hear it. To Allen's credit, Midnight in Paris takes an enormous risk with a major twist that's impossible not to discuss. Remarkably (and refreshingly), the previews for the film hide any hint of this shift from what appears to be a Parisian-set romantic comedy into a fantasy time travel escapade that evokes comparisons to Back to the Future and Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure, mixed with a touch of Forrest Gump. Like I said, it's a risk.

It's a twist that comes out of nowhere. In one moment we're sauntering along with Gil (Owen Wilson), an antsy Hollywood screenwriter on vacation in Paris with his high-maintenance and un-charismatic fiancée Inez (Rachel McAdams) and her equally high maintenance parents. The lack of chemistry between Gil and Inez is—what's the opposite of subtle?—and the film's opening acts are made worse by Gil's constant whining about his unfinished novel and nostalgia for the writers and artists of 1920s Paris. Gil aches to mingle with the intelligentsia of the Parisian Golden Age, if only, we can assume, to hide from the overbearing Inez.

And so he is transported there. With no explanation of how or why, Gil stumbles 90 years back in time during a drunken nighttime walk through the streets of Paris. He's picked up by revelers in a Peugeot and whisked away to a party at which the guests include F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald and a man who goes by the name Hemingway. Gil tells them he's a writer. They tell Gil that their friend Gertrude Stein might be willing to read and edit his manuscript. So it goes, in scenes repeated night after night, the befuddled Gil meets the artistic elite one by one: Picasso, Salvador Dalí, T.S. Elliott, Josephine Baker, Cole Porter and so on and so on. Stein reads his book; he falls in love with Picasso's former mistress; and for the most part he stops whining.

But by day Gil returns to modern day Paris and his modern day annoyances. Wilson, playing the part of Woody Allen as written by Woody Allen, is charming to the degree he is in just about all his roles, which is to say not quite insufferable. Far more entertaining in the modern Paris scenes is the wonderful Michael Sheen as Inez's friend Paul, an elitist know-it-all snob.

Unfortunately Sheen's scenes are intermittent and are swallowed up by Gil's time-traveling adventures. I get what Allen is trying to do, but everything about the fantasy angle is clunky, from the transitions between past and present to the very Gump-ian pattern in which nearly every single person Gil meets is an icon of his or her time. Allen would have been better served building a better story than going for the cheap thrill (Hey look, that's Adrien Brody playing Dalí!)

I've heard Midnight in Paris described as Allen's love letter to Paris, just as he supposedly wrote cinematic love letters to New York City for 30 years before a self-imposed exile abroad led to the streets of London and Barcelona. If this film is a love letter it's a strange one. If Paris is really full of the neurotic, spoiled and entitled characters on display here, I have no interest in the Louvre, whether it's today or 1924.

Midnight in Paris concludes its run at the Wilma tonight, Thursday, July 21, at 9 PM.

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