From the first loving, glowing montage opening the latest Woody Allen film, it’s apparent that the filmmaker is a man in love again. The subject of his affection: Paris herself, and specifically a wistful longing for the lore of Paris in the ’20s … in the rain. Such shameless romanticism could seem like a shallow wallow in been-there/done-that tediousness, except that Allen is on very good terms with his muse this time around, conjuring a surprisingly engaging, time-tripping saga that makes for one of his finest projects in years.
Why dream about hanging out with Hemingway, the Fitzgeralds, Cole Porter, Picasso, Luis Buñuel, and the lot, when the magic of cinema logic can make it happen in real time? So goes the nutty but endearing plot of Midnight in Paris. Our hero (Owen Wilson) is a Hollywood hack and wannabe novelist who stumbles on a time-space portal that takes him back to 1920s Paris, and all the cultural gods, American expats, and genius rogues thereof. Wisely, Allen casts relatively unknown actors to play these mythic artistic figures of old, although we struggle to accept both Kathy Bates as Gertrude Stein and Adrien Brody as Salvador Dali.
Perhaps the biggest surprise of the new Allen film is the magnetic presence of Wilson, moving beyond his standard, silly comedy roles and whacked Wes Anderson gigs. He apparently has the Woody Allen protagonist gene within, right down to the slightly irritating habit of Allen principals mimicking the director’s nattering speech patter and cadence.
Of course, it takes no great leap of interpretation to see Allen’s own obsessions and passions bubbling up in this quirky number. We know by now that he’s obsessed with Lost Generation artistic ferment and vintage music. This time around, though, our hero doesn’t exactly get the girl, due to issues of parallel histories, soured modern-day fiancée relations, and the like. But he does get the civic girl in question. Paris. In the ’20s. In the rain.