“Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?” was an educational push in reaction to a National Geographic survey revealing most Americans couldn’t tell you where Dubai or Des Moines is on a map. “Midnight in Paris” can seem like Woody Allen’s educational push that most American’s wouldn’t know Degas from Dali.
Or the 76 year old Allen was just having a retrospective blast of imagination, taking us for a Disney-esque, “it’s a small world after all” ride through 1920s Paris. “Midnight in Paris,” written and directed by Allen, gives us Gil Pender (Owen Wilson), an American screenwriter freeloading with his fiancée (Rachel McAdams) on her parents’ business trip in current-day Paris.
Wilson is perpetually dissuaded from joining his fiancée and her “pseudo-intellectual” friends (Michael Sheen) on touristy Parisian clichés. He is apathetic about screenwriting and desires the nostalgic sojourn of writing novels in Paris, like many American novelists did in the 1920s.
Strolling back to his hotel one night the stupid American gets lost in Paris. When a distant clock chimes midnight, the magical mystery tour begins. A whimsical car full of champagne drinking, smoking Parisians whisks Gil off into a worm hole of 1920s nightlife. It becomes a literary wet-dream of young American novelists nourishing their Parisian souls, amongst European artists locking intellectual horns in sexual competition.
Allen starts name dropping in his screenplay straight out of a history book, or PBS special. Cole Porter, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Zelda, Ernest Hemingway, Josephine Baker, Gertrude Stein, Picasso, Salvador Dali, Man Ray, Luis Bunuel, T.S. Eliot and Henri Matisse. Given, it was a small world in Paris nightlife running with the artsy, literary crowds of the 1920s, so many of these interactions have historical weight.
Many people see “Midnight in Paris” as Woody Allen’s return to his heyday of intellectualized romantic screwball comedies. That is a genre belonging almost to Allen alone, but “Midnight…” isn’t quite have the mouthful Allen could hold in his bite. Gil Pender seems acutely written for Owen Wilson, who embraces the geeky appearance of Allen’s persona, but doesn’t sing in tune with his neurotic wit.
The opening montage is a postcard Paris day set to Allen’s classic Django jazz sounds. It stirs the anticipation of Allen’s opening montage in “Manhattan,” and he delivers as only Woody can. If you love Allen’s films, you’re going to relish “Midnight in Paris.” If you hold an inkling of appreciation for early 20th century literature and art, it will conjure smirks of recognition. If all that fails, your endearment to Owen Wilson, not to mention Kathy Bates or Adrian Brody, might lure you into Allen’s lesson in culture.
What is timely about “Midnight in Paris” is its philosophical center, which is a cautionary tale of nostalgia as a mental disorder. Gil Pender is in search of a “Golden Age,” but he learns that the grass is not greener in the past: it’s dead. This is all too timely amongst summer movie releases that dwell in the past.
Comic book heroes of a golden age like, “Thor,” “Captain America” and the “X-Men,” more “Pirate” rides from Disney, 1980s nostalgia of “Transformers” and J.J. Abrams’s Spielberg homage “Super 8.” Most people will spend the summer living in the past at the multiplex, so leave it to Woody Allen to prescribe a Parisian holiday that embraces the present.