A Night at the Jewseum: Woody Allen Molests His History Book
I walked out of Midnight in Paris with a smile on my face, and frankly, I’m shocked. The last time I walked out of a Woody Allen film, it was on an airplane. Not really, but that’s exactly the kind of joke you expect to hear in a Woody Allen movie, a hacky, Borscht belt knee-slapper interspersed amongst the polysyllabic bloviating and romanticized notions of intellectual cocktail chatter. The “turgid discussions about categorical imperativeses,” and whatnot. More so than just about everything, comedy has a way of passing you by if you don’t evolve. A style tends to die as soon as people recognize its structure, and I thought the Woody Allen rom-com was dead. D-E-A-D, dead like the Farrelly Brothers. I figured the critics writing glowing reviews were just nostalgia junkies. At best, I expected inoffensive chuckle fare, conversation fodder for my mom and men with ponytails, something to help them relive the glory days while boogeying to moderately-volumed Steely Dan. Instead, I actually laughed. Hell, I thoroughly f*cking enjoyed myself.
It’s not that it’s not Woody, it’s very Woody. At it’s most basic, Midnight in Paris is about a man searching for a woman who can appreciate the beauty of rainfall in Paris. If that was all it was about, I would’ve never stopped vomiting. Thankfully, there’s a middle section. Owen Wilson plays Gil, one of the Woodiest of Woody Allen surrogates, a chatty screenwriter who wears earth-tone suits and shirts with no tie, and talks philosophically while gesturing with his hands. Visiting Paris with his bitchy fiancee played by Rachel McAdams (OH MY GOD YOU GUYS HER ASS IS A MIRACLE), Gil has dreams of one day ditching screenwriting and moving to Paris to write novels like his golden age idols. The story begins the way you’d expect a Woody Allen movie to begin. With stagey, contrived dialog about psychology (“you’re living in the past!”) and politics (“Palin is a lunatic!”) that you could never imagine two people having in the real world unless they were pretending to be in a Woody Allen movie. But quickly it leaps from Woody Allen-land into the realm of fantasy, becoming, like… this whole other thing. This magnificent tall tale, this light-hearted Charlie Kaufman.
Through the magic of some thankfully-unexplained wormhole, Gil quickly goes from pining for the Paris of Hemingway’s time to actually being in the Paris of Hemingway’s time, every night, hanging out with Hemingway himself, and assorted flappers, bullfighters, and hellraisers. Corey Stoll plays the Papa as a young man, before his famous buckshot taste test, in a role any actor would kill for, furiously spraying quotable line after quotable line, gems like, “Do you fear death? Only a coward fears death. The artist’s job is not to fear death, but create an antidote to it. You can never escape death, only momentarily forget it by loving a truly great woman.” Something like that. He also talks about killing lions and rhinos a lot, and it’s funny every time, because manly men used to do that.
Once Gil is immersed in the Parisien nightlife of the 1920s, partying with Dali (Adrian Brody) and Cole Porter, Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Allen’s staginess suddenly seems charming again. Gil gets notes on his writing from Gertrude Stein and falls in love with a mistress of Picasso (Marion Cotillard), he gives Buñuel ideas for films and talks paint with Matisse. It’s cutesy as hell, yet it works, like Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure for liberal arts majors, A Night at the Jewseum, if you will. (NOTE: A film which might not play as well to a 5 Fast 5 Furious crowd). And the best part is, there’s no explanation of the fantastic. No gypsy curse or magic telephone booth, you’re just there, in the realm of fantasy, because you want to be. It exists because you accept it, and you accept it because it’s fun as sh*t. Talk about art as a cure for death.
Midnight in Paris is a lot like the best of Charlie Kaufman (Eternal Sunshine, Being John Malkovich) in that it subverts your expectations by constantly exploding into ever-more ridiculous flights of fancy. There’s even an Inception-like, fantasy-within-a-fantasy sequence that had me leaning over to my girlfriend to whisper “braaaaahmmm…” in her ear. Only, instead of meticulously resolving every wacky plot device like a Kaufman or Christopher Nolan, Woody Allen ties them up in a much Woody Allenier way, with nothing but a glib joke or a wry smile. Why does Gil go back in time? Why does the chicken cross the road? Why does the fiyahman weah suspendahs? Ha ch-cha cha cha.
Actually, it’s probably unfair to compare Midnight in Paris to Charlie Kaufman, because it most reminds me of another, pre-Kaufman Woody Allen film, “Oedipus Wrecks,” a vignette from New York Stories. Woody Allen’s character constantly wishes his mother would just disappear, and one night, he takes her to a magic show where she actually disappears, to his great relief. Only he soon finds out that she hasn’t disappeared at all, and instead has reappeared in the sky over the city, where she can harass him constantly and share his most embarrassing personal details with strangers. Nowadays, high-concept films are almost always over-explained, yet hopelessly mundane — RYAN REYNOLDS AND JASON BATEMEN SWITCH BODIES WHILE PEEING IN A FOUNTAIN! RATED ARG FOR PIRATES F*CK YOU! Midnight in Paris is the kind of overtly fantastical high concept that’s actually a clever method of treating universal problems, and not just a hackneyed excuse to put Sandler in a funny costume. Best of all, it’s really fun. I miss movies like this.
GRADE: 6.5 out of 7 turgid discussions about Rachel McAdams’ butt