This brief review of Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris will be very Allenesque. By that, I don’t mean that it will be packed with urbane, occasionally surreal witticisms about relationships, but rather that I’ll be borrowing whole sections of it from the last review I wrote of a Woody Allen film. Names will be changed, but I’ll be able to save time and energy by just copying and pasting directly from the previous article, which was mostly about Spectacular Attractions favourite Naomi Watts‘s performance in You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger. Borrowed passages are highlighted in blue.
These days, each new Woody Allen film offers me only the dispiriting sight of a once volcanically creative artist continually raking over the same old ground, barely challenging himself, and dragging his esteemed cast of actors into his circle of stifling complacency. I say “these days”, but I haven’t seen a satisfying new Allen film since 1999′s Sweet and Lowdown. And yet, the films keep coming, often with the promise of a return to form. Now, if you need a summary of my thoughts on Midnight in Paris, or a quote for the poster, it would be something like “not nearly as bad as the other films he’s made in recent years”, but that’s not exactly high praise.
I can recall some lovely moments from this film – the return to the Belle Epoque for one scene is beautifully designed and shot, with an opulence that Allen usually eschews, even though his recent films are suffocated by well-dressed good taste and conversations in front of expensive artworks (which always end up throwing Allen’s own artistic efforts into sharp relief); there’s a scene where Owen Wilson’s time travelling American in Paris gets to sit down with Salvador Dali, Luis Bunuel, and Man Ray, giving Adrien Brody a chance to show off a magnificent Dali impersonation; Paris looks nice, but though the opening montage of postcard views apes the beginning of Manhattan, it makes the French capital look far less epic than Woody’s home town: the whole place has the yellow-gold saturation of other recent Woodies. Cinematographer Darius Khondji comes into his own every time there’s a chance to light a scene with candles or the bulbs of a carousel, but he’s mostly kept on the hook: anyway, after serving as DP on The Ninth Gate, My Blueberry Nights, The Beach, and Alien: Resurrection, he must be growing accustomed to being the best thing about middling movies. Many viewers will relish the chance to spot well-known artistic/literary figures, and despite the brief caricatures, these are mostly fun: each gets to do a bit of their party piece and disappear again into the psychic backdrop of a romanticised time and place long since vanished: plus, you’ll never be made to feel like a cultural shut-out, because each one is introduced and given a little career summary. On the whole, though, whatever the glowing reviews might have you believe, this is mostly business as usual.
One of the positive developments is that Woody has forsaken a large cast of interconnected characters to focus on one character’s (Owen Wilson, a less neurotic Woody-proxy than usual, but a Woody-proxy nevertheless) adventure, and the high concept of having him travel back to his own personal Golden Age, a Parisian coterie of writers and painters (Hemingway, Stein, Picasso, Fitzgerald (I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – give Alison Pill her own movie!)), reminds us of Allen’s short prose stories, most of which were built around a magical or absurdist premise. The simplicity is welcome, but it does mean that supporting characters are coarsely sketched. But yet again, the central figure is nursing a stalled writing career (writer’s block being Allenesque shorthand for a character who is … well, it’s hardly a shorthand – he’s just preoccupied, ironically, with intellectual creatives who can’t produce creative work any more). Wilson’s fiancée (Rachel McAdams) doesn’t understand him – he’s impulsive, romantic and idealistic, she’s formal, punctual, sensible and uptight. Her characterisation is unremittingly functional – even in earlier films where he negotiates the merits and demerits of adultery, Allen was prepared to add some ambiguities to the relationships, but here, there are no reasons for Wilson not to break off this engagement and thus no dilemma about his predicament.
Time and time again in Allen’s recent films, we can see the same character types, declarations of attraction, and adulterous acts coming a mile off. Each person is dissatisfied with something, and their achievement of satisfaction comes at the expense of somebody close to them. There will be a scene where people shop for jewellery or antiques, thereby revealing their attitudes towards wealth, property and therefore, >sigh< life.
A writer will agonise over his creative work and what others will think of it, and will seek fulfilment from an exotic, fantastic female (in this case it’s Slumdog Millionaire‘s Freida Pinto Marion Cotillard who gets to be the unfeasibly beautiful scratching post for the male protagonist’s frustrations, and her functional staticness is signaled by having her every scene punctuated by exactly the same extract from a Boccherini piece for guitar permanently available and eager to see him, falling in love at the first few lines of prose she hears. We will be invited to boo and hiss at the bloviations of a “pseudo-intellectual” sexual interloper (this time essayed by a beardy Michael Sheen), because pseudo-intellectuals are to Woody Allen’s films what Nazis are to Steven Spielberg’s, or what tall buildings are to Roland Emmerich’s.
Where once the dialogue, even in Allen’s less openly comedic films, was a vessel for a febrile, skewed wit that flattered even as it mocked the pretensions of the culturally comfortable, it is now wholly utilitarian, allowing people to vocalise their desires, the obstacles to their desires, and their position on a given issue. These are films that depend upon their observations of human interaction, but while there’s a strong commitment to depicting the situations that divide people in relationships (competing ambitions, mismatched social class or aesthetic interests), there’s no feel for the way couples speak, the individuated language patterns of euphemism, evasion, familiar shortcuts and easy intimacy that they build together. The adulteries are heavily signposted, not least since just about every engaged couple in recent Allen ends up on the rocks (do these films lead to awkward conversations at home for the Allens?), and the tensions that cause them (he likes art and feels it instinctively, vs. she likes art because it’s expensive) overly familiar. At least Wilson gets to run off with an utterly cursory hottie ex machina, who runs her own antique shop, where the pseudo-intellectuals do not congregate.
This is an amiable film, and I can see why people like it, though not why people who know Allen’s work seem to see it as an emergence from the rut as opposed to a slightly more enthusiastic clawing at its sides. But perhaps I should heed the message of the film and stop pining for a golden age. I should forget that in my dorky teenage years Woody Allen made me feel comfortable in my dorkiness; that’s not his job any more. We’ve both moved on.