It is easy to get an audience on your side if you set your film in one of the greatest cities on Earth and then heavily romanticize it. Woody Allen has succeeded with Manhattan—perhaps his best film, top to bottom—more recently with Vicky Cristina Barcelona, and now with Midnight in Paris.
But how would Allen fare with something like Vicky Cristina Barstow?
Woody's extended European tour, which has been the backdrop for his resurgence in the past half-decade or so, has deepened his dramatic storytelling (Match Point and Cassandra's Dream) but has further flattened his comedies (Scoop, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger). Midnight in Paris is easily his best straight-ahead comedy in a while, providing genuine laughs and holding a viewer's interest—though it is not as accomplished as Vicky Cristina or Match Point.
The film opens with a parade of snapshots of the City of Light, a three-minute montage of sites that could only be in Paris. Even if you've never been, they are recognizable, if not identifiable, and perhaps that's the filmmaker's point. After the introduction of Paris, Allen zeroes in on his story, which is fresher than most of his recent comedy tales, even if it suffers from some pretty deep flaws in the execution.
Gil (Owen Wilson) is a screenwriter, a "Hollywood hack" by his own admission. Vacationing in Paris with his fiancée, Inez (Rachel McAdams), Gil has the overwhelming desire to stay there and walk away from his career in the movies. He's writing his first novel and finds Paris inspirational—perhaps a more "serious" place for a "serious" writer to live.
The neurotic, frustrated writer with relationship problems is a stock Woody Allen character, so even though Gil and Inez are close to taking the plunge, it's not all rosy, even in Paris. She seems taken with and a bit distracted by a fatuous know-it-all (Michael Sheen), and Gil is tired of the modern annoyances of his life in California, telling Inez how he wished they lived in Paris during the Golden Age of the 1920s. (That's one of Paris' Golden Ages, anyway, a luxury afforded to cities that are a couple thousand years old.)
One night, Gil hails a cab and winds up at a party in what looks like a really retro discotheque. In reality, he's been transported back to the 1920s, where he bumps into luminaries like Hemingway, Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, Picasso and Dalí. It is, as Gil would have suspected, better than his real life.
Allen seems to be imploring the adage about the grass being greener on the other side, and that's part of it. He's also saying that you can't live on the other side, anyway, so you might as well take care of your own lawn. Or something like that: As much as Gil might have enjoyed Paris in the '20s, he simply can't stay there, so he'd better find a way to improve his real life.
While it's a victory for Allen, Midnight in Paris really puts wind back in the sails of Owen Wilson's staid career. His boyish optimism carries the film, and his comedic timing, which is usually good on its own, becomes even crisper with Allen's distinctly rhythmic writing. The supporting cast members are great as well, but they truly are supporting in this case.
The problems that exist are symptomatic of many of Woody Allen's films: The main characters are pretty interchangeable with those from his other comedies; his dialogue often sounds like he's trying to amuse himself and not an audience; and he's so in love with the hook of his story that the rest of the details are undercooked, at best.
But this time, it doesn't matter very much. Maybe that's an upshot of shooting a film in Paris instead of Barstow.