Here’s a sentence I never thought I’d write again: Woody Allen has made a wonderful new picture, “Midnight in Paris,” and it’s his best, most enjoyable work in years.
If you’re surprised to be reading that, think how I feel writing it. I’ve been a tough sell on the past dozen or so Allen films, very much including the well-acted but finally wearying “Vicky Cristina Barcelona.” It seemed that everything he touched in recent years was tainted by misanthropy and sourness. Until now.
With “Midnight in Paris,” Allen has lightened up, allowed himself a treat and in the process created a gift for us and him. His new film is simple and fable-like, with a definite “when you wish upon a star” quality, but, bolstered by appealing performers like Owen Wilson, Marion Cotillard and Rachel McAdams, it is his warmest, mellowest and funniest venture in far too long.
This is also a film with an unanticipated twist, so the less you know about it the better. Try to see it immediately, before well-meaning friends tell you more than they should. “Midnight in Paris” is too charming to be ruined by anything, but this is a case where ignorance really is bliss.
Allen says he’s been enamored of Paris since he wrote and acted in “What’s New Pussycat?” in 1965. You can sense his continued passion for the city throughout the film, feel the extra pep in his step and pleasure in his heart.
Seductively shot by Darius Khondji (whatever tax credits this film got will be paid back with interest), “Midnight” opens with an extended montage of Paris’ tourist landmarks, a montage that lasts longer than necessary to simply establish location. Allen is saying: Pay attention — this is a special place, a place where magic can happen.
That’s certainly the attitude of Gil (Wilson), a successful Hollywood screenwriter who is an effusive enthusiast for the City of Light in general, and the 1920s golden age of Fitzgerald-Hemingway Paris in particular. So much so that Gil dreams of turning his back on all that studio money and writing novels on the Left Bank.
Gil’s fiancée, Inez (McAdams), doesn’t like the sound of that. She and Gil are in Paris accompanying her wealthy parents on a business trip and she doesn’t even want to think about anything that would diminish Gil’s income.
Gil’s raptures are put on hold when he and Inez bump into Inez’s friend Paul (Michael Sheen) and his wife. A professor whom Inez once had a crush on, Paul is in Paris to lecture at the Sorbonne. It’s soon clear he’s an insufferable bore so pedantic he gets into an argument with a guide at the Rodin Museum (a brief cameo for French First Lady Carla Bruni).
As much to escape Paul as anything else, Gil takes a late-night walk and just as the clock strikes midnight on the Rue Montagne St. Genevieve, something happens that throws everything in Gil’s life into disarray.
Perhaps most unsettling, but in a good way, is Gil’s meeting with the beautiful and spirited Adriana (Cotillard), an aspiring fashion designer who has a history of inspiring artists. The connection between them is immediate but the barriers to any kind of relationship are formidable.
With remarkable naturalness and considerable charisma, Cotillard is just as she should be here, as are both Wilson, one of the most likable of contemporary actors, and McAdams, who deftly handles a part that is less amiable than usual for her.
Also great fun in smaller roles are Kathy Bates and Adrien Brody as well as French stars Lea Seydoux and Gad Elmaleh
On display as well is Allen’s sharp and satisfying script. It makes jokes about everyone from Djuna Barnes to Luis Bunuel but also takes time to ponder the role of the artist and the importance of not undervaluing the age we live in.
More than anything, obviously, “Midnight” has Paris. For one film, at least, that extraordinary city has changed Allen’s mood and altered his outlook on cinema and life. It may do the same for you.