Woody’s second act: ‘Midnight in Paris’ may not be ‘Annie Hall,’ but people keep paying good money to see it

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Woody Allen with Owen Wilson. (Via woodyallen.com)
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Woody Allen makes, on average, a movie a year. Given such an output, not every movie is going to be a masterpiece, and Allen seems fine with that. There is certainly something to be said for Stanley Kubrick’s or Terrence Malick’s pace, the directors who develop projects for sometimes decades, but Allen has always been up to something different. He has his hits, he has his misses (Cassandra’s Dream, anyone?), and he keeps on working.

The slapdash feeling of his late career puzzles people. A film comes out, and then everyone wonders why it's not Annie Hall.

The professional legacy of Annie Hall, Manhattan and Hannah and her Sisters is impossible to live up to, and Allen’s films are rarely big box-office hits anyway.

Which is why the story of his latest, Midnight in Paris is so significant.

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Midnight in Paris is Allen’s 41st film. It opened the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year, and opened in the U.S. in May.

Some reviewers reflexively pooh-pooh Allen’s lighter fare, and even among the generally positive reviews of Midnight in Paris, there have been unkindnesses.

The indispensable James Berardinelli ends his three-star review of the film with, “Words like ‘pleasant’, ‘enjoyable’, and ‘undemanding’ apply to Midnight in Paris, although some may consider that damning with faint praise—especially those who look to Woody Allen to cast a cynical eye on the foibles of a man in love. Allen's movies often deal with love and sex and, although he often dabbles in nostalgia, rarely does he do so with such unabashed romanticism. Midnight in Paris does not challenge greatness, but it's a nice, low-key way to spend 100 minutes.”

Berardinelli captures the high expectations that have dogged Allen’s career, and the vague feeling of disappointment that greets his current projects that don’t seem as “important." 

Midnight in Paris has made $50 million dollars in the U.S. alone, and is Woody Allen’s most profitable movie to date, surpassing Hannah and her Sisters. It had a limited original release in America (400 theaters), but since the movie is still selling tickets after months of being in circulation, Sony Pictures Classics has decided to re-release it in 500 theatres on August 26. Sony executives hope that the film can find its second wind, as the giant blockbusters move off the screen in preparation for fall. Sony has also been open about its hopes for the film for Oscar season. The summer movie season is filled with robots and 3-D extravaganzas, meaning that movies like Midnight in Paris can get lost in the shuffle. The fact that audiences have made it their business to go see this movie anyway indicates that it is perhaps something more than a “nice, low-key way to spend 100 minutes."

Woody Allen’s films often deal with nostalgia. Radio Days was an elegy for his lost childhood, Broadway Danny Rose was a black-and-white comedy mourning the loss of the old-timey, tough Broadway talent agents and producers. The brilliant Bullets Over Broadway brought us back into the 1920s theater scene in New York City. Even Crimes and Misdemeanors, with its brutal tale of a man who murders his mistress and gets away with it, is a wail of loss for simpler days, before the world turned ruthless.

Nostalgia can be tricky. If you live only in the past, you are a fantasist and a bore who imagines that things were better back in some mythical Golden Age. But there are also beautiful things in the past, and to forget that in the rush of modern life means we forget the most valuable parts of ourselves.

This is the landscape Midnight in Paris occupies. The film starts with a voiceover, Gil (Owen Wilson, playing a damn good Allen alter-ego), praising the beauties of Paris, and how much he wants to live there, and how amazing it must have been to live in Paris in the 1920s with all of those great American ex-pat writers. Allen’s not trying to sneak up on us here. He lays the premise out right from the beginning. We know exactly where we are going.

Gil is engaged to be married to Inez (Rachel McAdams), who is, to put it mildly, not suitable for him. She barely seems to like him, let alone love him, but she appreciates his status as a successful Hollywood screenwriter, and scoffs at his desire to move to Paris and work on his novel. It is not clear if the book Gil has written (which is about a man who works in a nostalgia shop) is any good. But what is clear is that he idolizes the writers who gathered in Paris in the 1920s and, through bravado, talent, and sheer force of will, created modern literature. The old forms cracked and fell away in the wake of World War I. Artists attempted to find a language appropriate to their shattered world. Painters, composers, novelists, poets, expressed the giant shattering their generation had experienced. Many of these writers worked in isolation, but many gathered in Paris. F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Djuna Barnes, Gertrude Stein, James Joyce, Ezra Pound, H.D. and Amy Lowell congregated at Sylvia Beach’s Left Bank bookshop, Shakespeare & Company, and worked and fought and drank. 

Gil’s enthusiasm for that time is not shared by his fiancée, who treats his romantic outbursts with wary derision. Gil says at one point to Inez and another couple, “I had a professor in college who once was in Paris and he came across James Joyce who was sitting in a café and he was eating sauerkraut and a hot dog.” The group waits to see if there is more to the story, but no, Gil is just amazed that he knew someone who had actually seen James Joyce in the flesh, and how incredible it was that the genius was eating sauerkraut! Sauerkraut, imagine that!

In her comic novel The Fiery Pantheon, Nancy Lemann writes, “She had a nostalgia for a life she had never lived.” This is Gil’s dilemma.

One night, on a drunken, solitary walk back to the hotel, Gil gets lost. He finds himself in an isolated square, and as the clock strikes midnight, a gleaming car pulls up, clearly of 1920s vintage, and a group of laughing people entreat him to join their group. Baffled, he does, and then finds himself at a party. Gil is not sure what has happened, but when a charming young couple come up to him and introduce themselves as “Scott and Zelda," he starts to understand. Not only do these legends make him feel welcome, they introduce him to their wide circle of friends. So Gil meets Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Pablo Picasso, T.S. Eliot, Salvador Dali, Man Ray, Luis Buñuel. (One of the funniest moments in the movie has Gil giving Buñuel the idea for The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie: Gil: “I’ve got an idea for a movie for you. A bunch of people come to a dinner party but when they try to leave … they can’t.” Buñuel: “I don’t get it. Why can’t they leave?”)

Over a series of nights, as Inez grows more and more suspicious, Gil meets up with his friends in the past. Ernest Hemingway suggests Gil give his book to Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates) to critique. Gil falls in love with a French woman, Adriana (Marion Cotillard), who has been the lover of every famous painter in town, and she, too, is infected with the nostalgia curse, only she wants to live in Belle Epoque Paris. Nobody is ever satisfied with where they are. Adriana lives in Gil’s Golden Age, but Adriana’s Golden Age is elsewhere.

A strangely hopeful movie (Woody Allen? Hopeful?), it’s really a fairy tale about finding a life appropriate for your spirit and sensibility, and surrounding yourself with a like-minded tribe. It’s best to find other nerds who will gasp in amazement at the image of James Joyce eating sauerkraut. Then you won’t feel so alone in the world.