“And it starts…sometime around midnight, or at least that’s when you lose yourself for a minute or two.” – Airborne Toxic Event, “Sometime Around Midnight”
Midnight in Paris does not fit the typical “Lost Hours” mold. Nominated for four Oscars, including Best Picture, and a winner for Woody Allen’s screenplay, the movie may deserve a different type of recognition, but nevertheless I have lost SO MANY hours watching it, and I can’t help but to “love the sappiness” of it. Regardless of your probably negative reaction to reading or hearing Allen’s name, in this case his work succeeds in finding a sort of tormented beauty in the human instinct to rebel against anomie and discontent. I will never be Allen’s biggest fan (though I thoroughly enjoyed Blue Jasmine), but here it is easier to put him out of your mind as Owen Wilson plays the scribe’s onscreen facsimile.
For me, the movie is a must-see (over and over again) because of its characters. Wilson’s Gil yearns to escape his superficial existence through writing, to move past his halfhearted screenplays (wink, wink, endless nudges) and create something true and honest. Wilson does an admirable job — balancing exasperation and admiration from scene to scene — but his costars are the ones who made this movie memorable. Rachel McAdams — living American treasure — finds it within her angelic self to be hateful and vapid and cruel, her Inez dripping with pretension. Michael Sheen (the other Wesley Snipes) matches her horribleness as the unbearably knowledgeable Paul, and together their overintellectual flirtations alienate Gil, allowing for him to wander the streets as the clocks near midnight. At this point the fun truly begins, as Allen clearly savored the chance to depict his 20th-century icons. We get to see everyone from Picasso to Adrien Brody’s crazed Salvador Dali, but the stars of Gil’s backwards sojourns are the individuals who surely influenced artists like Allen most.
F. Scott Fitzgerald (along with Zelda) and Ernest Hemingway have shaped American literature as much as any other modern writers, but Allen seizes the chance to reduce them from icons to flawed and sensitive human beings. Fitzgerald, played by GWW
target pal Tom Hiddleston, struggles to control flighty Zelda, played crazed by Scott Pilgrim vs. the World‘s Alison Pill. Hemingway steals the show. Anyone who has read works about or by Hemingway knows of his gruff, masculine manner, and Corey Stoll delivers an absolutely excellent performance bordering on caricaturing the author’s more defined traits, challenging Wilson’s Gil to a fight and slipping famous Hemingway musings into regular conversations. Stoll, and presumably Allen, chose to exaggerate some of Hemingway’s self, but they maintain the insecurity and self-doubt that helped shape his work and life.
Besides Stoll and Loki, Kathy Bates and Marion Cotillard strengthen the cast of Gil’s nighttime flights. Bates plays Gertrude Stein, mentor and confidante for Hemingway and contemporaries. Her presence helps fill out the fantasy of living in 1920s Paris, the fantasy with which Gil (and possibly you, the viewer) becomes obsessed. Cotillard is beautiful and elegant and perfect, per usual, as Adriana, the mysterious specter who matches Gil’s nostalgia. In fact, though her performance is the quietest because it falls alongside those embodying the aforementioned literary gods, Cotillard’s is probably the most important. Wilson is polarizing for some people, and this role probably won’t change that, but Gil and Adriana create a fascinating story as the film progresses. Their battles with nostalgia may seem trite or overwrought, but I’m easily moved (Sue me!). It doesn’t hurt that the music bounces from scene to scene and decade to decade, and Paris is beautiful in every era, in every type of weather, at any time of day. At first I find myself rooting for Gil as he longs to live in a time gone by, but his nights with Adriana make Allen’s lesson clear: he denounces escaping a time because of your frustration with those around you, instead championing Gil’s ability to endure the present and work harder to find people to which he can relate, beyond the shores and screenplays Gil has lived within for so long (Very meta, Mr. Woody.).
If I can blow your mind just a little more, I love watching this movie, but I’m not sure if I love the movie itself. It’s almost more of a thinkpiece than a true movie, filled with great performances and some fascinating conversations but not really doing much of anything. And this is fine; it’s hard to say Allen hasn’t earned the right to do what he wants with his movies. Part of the appeal is getting to imagine more vividly the men and women behind the words and novels and quotations, and part is simply letting Paris wash over you. The movie doesn’t teach you anything you haven’t learned and realized over and over, but the music and script and scenery will still make you smile. I’ve already lost many midnights to Woody Allen (that reads WAY worse than it sounded in my head), and I’ll probably lose many more.