An unassuming wisp of a movie, Midnight In Paris finds Woody Allen penning a love letter to the City Of Lights, albeit one whose sentiments could easily fit on a postcard. In fact, the movie often appears to aspire to postcard status, particularly in an opening series of establishing shots of familiar Parisian sites progressing from dawn to dusk, with a picturesque afternoon shower thrown in for good measure. With pretty photography by Darius Khondji and a lovely piece of vintage jazz for a soundtrack, it recalls the opening moments of Allen’s Manhattan, only drained of the poetry and urgency. Which is fine, since any other approach would feel like false advertising. It’s the sort of movie in which the protagonist brags that he’s arrived at a “minor insight.” He might as well be asking the audience to pat the movie on the head for arriving at the same.
Surprisingly effective as the film’s Allen proxy, Owen Wilson stars as a successful screenwriter who dreams of ditching Hollywood, focusing on polishing his novel, and walking around with a baguette under his arm, which is apparently what one does in Paris when not drinking in cafés, penning fiction, or visiting the Musée Rodin. As the latest in a long line of the interchangeable, materialistic shrews to populate Allen’s later films (with a few happy exceptions like Vicky Cristina Barcelona), Rachel McAdams objects to this plan, dragging Wilson along on unpleasant outings with her conservative parents or a know-it-all professor (an amusingly unbearable Michael Sheen) as she makes plans for a house in Malibu and all the pleasures Hollywood money allows. Then, one night, Wilson gets lost, hops into a vintage Peugeot filled with partygoers in 1920s attire, and ends up transported through time and hobnobbing with Ernest Hemingway, Picasso, Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald, and many others.
So begins a series of journeys to a time when literary, musical, and artistic giants rubbed shoulders, argued, and did the Charleston. Allen realizes them with breezy enthusiasm and wax-museum attention to detail. A few actors—particularly Alison Pill as Zelda Fitzgerald and Kathy Bates as Gertrude Stein—get under their famous characters’ skins, but Allen is mostly content to work in broad strokes in recreating one of Paris’ most-storied periods. It’s all in service of exposing the fallacy of pining for a lost Golden Age—that’s the minor insight both film and protagonist reach—but the film makes it hard for fans of Allen’s past work not to engage in some Golden Age thinking. He’s dealt with the allure of fantasy and the pull of history with much more depth and consideration in his own past, in films like Zelig and The Purple Rose Of Cairo. His latest is entertaining enough, but unmistakably the work of a later, lesser era.