Why do I keep allowing Woody Allen to do this to me? Time after time I allow myself to get suckered by good reviews and loose talk of a return to form. It’s like I never learnt anything from Match Point. Woody isn’t a complete spent force (I enjoyed some of Melinda and Melinda and Whatever Works raised a few simple chuckles), but you can’t compare any of his recent work to the likes of Manhattan and Crimes and Misdemeanors. And the fact that Midnight in Paris got nominated for Best Picture is pure insanity. Apparently some directors just have to take a crap on the screen to get nominated while others can produce the best work of their life and get silently shafted.
You could argue that the beginning of Midnight in Paris, with a couple of minutes of shots of the spectacular French capital, is a companion piece to the beginning of Manhattan. It’s almost something of a love note. But while Manhattan had a breathless beginning, full of wit and poetry and spectacular photography, this is just a tourist’s view of the city. There’s no real insight. It’s merely an uninspired visual roll call of Paris’ most famous spots.
This tourist’s eye view of a major European city is something that plagued Match Point. You never really felt that Woody knew London. It felt completely at odds with his insider view of New York. And this feeling stretches to Paris. I don’t doubt that he’s visited the city a great many times, but the whole film is a bland kind of touristy wish-fulfillment. Beneath the central conceit of the movie (Owen Wilson, after midnight, can go back in time), there isn’t a thought deeper than, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool to go back in time and hang out with Ernest Hemingway and F.Scott Fitzgerald for a while...’
Call me crazy, but I expect something with a bit more substance than that when it comes to Best Picture nominees. And most criminal of all, for an Allen comedy, it’s not even that funny. Owen Wilson just lumbers around, doing a sub-par Woody Allen impression.
The only time that the film came close to making me laugh was during the scenes with Michael Sheen. Drunk with his own bullshit, Sheen plays a pretentious, pseudo-intellectual twit who undermines Gil (Wilson) at every turn. He’s so casually rude and tactless that he’s borderline sociopathic. Yet for some reason Gil’s fiance adores this nincompoop.
You know that Gil’s fiance is worthless because everything she wears has some sort of denim. Here she is in Paris, one of the most beautiful, chic cities in the world and she’s wearing a denim dress. How pathetically American of her. Oh, and she has neo-conservative parents.
I can see why Allen makes everyone so risible. He wants us to fall in line and stick rigidly behind Gil. But the characters are so overwhelmingly cartoonish that I couldn’t believe in them.
Firstly, I can’t believe that such conservative parents would want to spend any time in Paris, even if it was just for some business. Surely, given all the ridiculous hatred towards the French (hand me some Freedom Fries!), this should be the last place they would want to be. Secondly, what is Gil doing with such a wretched woman? His fiance talks down to him, she dismisses him at every turn and she’s clearly having an affair with Michael Sheen. The fact that Gil would stay with this woman, and consider marrying her, reflects very poorly on him. He’s an idiot for associating with these people.
But of course, the fact that his present day life is so dismal is meant to make the trip back in time all that much sweeter. It’s part of the whole ‘golden age thinking’ theory that’s presented. Almost everyone is disappointed with the present. Most people think that everything was better at a certain point in the past. It’s the one interesting thought that the film has.
Being even more of a slave to golden age thinking than most, Gil is delighted to be whisked away to a Paris where Hemingway, F.Scott Fitzgerald and Picasso are roaming the streets. But the character is such a fanboy, and has so little to say, that all of his encounters are nothing more than a painfully shallow fawning. There’s so little meat in this film, it’s incredible. It’s like Allen never managed to get beyond the concept.
One of the few things that I could connect to was Gil’s love of city life. He argues that no writer or painter or musician is ever going to create something that’s going to compete with a great city - each corner and each street is its own special art form. And I kind of agree. No film, no book and no piece of music can compete with my beloved London. They just can’t get close.
Eventually Gil recognises the flaw in his thinking and decides to return to the present forever. But this is only because Adriana (Marion Cotillard), the object of his affection, finds a portal to yet another part of Paris’s past. She wants to live in the Belle Epoque. Aghast that she wants to live in a time without penicillin, they go their separate ways.
With this disappointment, Gil finally realises the futility of nostalgia. Yes the present might be painful and unsatisfactory, but such is life. No matter where we are, most of us are destined to want more. It’s human nature. But any depth or melancholy is eschewed for a standard Hollywood ending. Gil breaks up with his horrible fiance and then bumps into a girl he met earlier - a girl who sells antiques at a local market. Of course, the girl is incredibly young and very attractive and they both remark upon how they love Paris in the rain. They then walk off, presumably to enjoy Paris as a couple. The triteness and neatness of this is the final nail in the coffin of a horribly mediocre film. I might go and watch Deconstructing Harry to get rid of the stench.