From its rapturous opening sequence, Midnight in Paris announces that Woody Allen has returned to at least one of his most beloved forms. The writer-director, whose work has skimmed screwball comedy, Bergman-esque drama, melancholic romance and misanthropic satire, comes back to his Manhattan roots here, as that opening number soaringly attests.
While saxophonist Sidney Bechet plays 'Si Tu Vois Ma Mere', images of Paris amble past, each street corner, rooftop and rainy square more unabashedly romantic than the last. Allen lingers on the sequence, letting it play just a tad longer than is strictly comfortable. His message to the audience is underlined, italicised and written in bold: This is my Paris. Sink in, soak it up and surrender yourself.
Those who follow his lead will be richly rewarded. Midnight in Paris finds Allen in a larky, slightly tart and altogether bountiful mood, giving filmgoers a movie that, while unabashedly funny and playful, provides a profiterole or two for thought. Owen Wilson plays Gil, a screenwriter and would-be serious author who's visiting Paris with his fiancee, Inez (Rachel McAdams), and her parents (Kurt Fuller and Mimi Kennedy).
Gil is besotted with the Paris of the 1920s, when his heroes F Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway traded dry martinis and even drier barbs with the likes of Gertrude Stein and Pablo Picasso. Inez and her family, on the other hand, couldn't care less. When Gil mentions that Hemingway called Paris a moveable feast, Inez's mom quips that “in this traffic, nothing moves.” The mood is doubly spoiled when they bump into Paul (Michael Sheen), an old college crush of Inez's, now an incorrigible pedant.
Newly alive to his own thwarted literary ambitions, or perhaps threatened by the obvious attraction between Inez and Paul, Gil winds up exploring Paris on his own, embarking on an enchanted journey that brings him into contact with a ravishing designer named Adriana (Marion Cotillard).
Toggling easily between the contemporary Paris and the idealised city of Gil's imagination, Midnight in Paris finds Allen at his most fluid and fluently witty in years. The filmmaker has set himself a tricky technical needle to thread, but Allen moves with ease between contemporary satire and a fairy tale inhabited by such legendary artists as Dali, Picasso and Hemingway. (Once in a while the two worlds collide with particular hilarity.)
Allen is less generous toward his present-day cast of characters. With more texture and depth, for example, Inez and Paul could have been far more interesting and amusing than the odious caricatures they are here. In Wilson, however, Allen has lighted on an improbably appealing guide. Granted, it's a bit of a stretch to believe the ultimate surfer dude as the type of guy who would know what James Joyce ate during his Paris sojourn. But he makes for a refreshingly sunny Allen avatar, displaying none of his director's neurotic mannerisms and, in crucial sequences, perfectly embodying a quintessential 21st-century man utterly at odds with his archaic surroundings.
As an exhilarating valentine to the luminosity that gives the 'city of light' its name, Midnight in Paris is sheer pleasure to watch, full of rich visuals and felicitous comic turns. But there's also substance beneath the glossy veneer and fanciful high jinks: a wistful meditation on nostalgia, self-deception and commitment that reminds viewers of the philosophical heft that has always characterised Allen's strongest work.
As Gil succumbs to the enticements of ambered memory and Paris' most alluring charms, Midnight in Paris becomes not so much an escape into fantasy as a seductive, oddly affecting reverie on the most timeless reality of all: that love may have less to do with physical attraction or even intellectual harmony than with the willingness to inhabit someone else's dreams. Midnight in Paris may be a mere bagatelle, but it's a beguiling one, brimming with sweetness and soul.