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Saturday, May 28, 2011

Midnight In Paris


Woody Allen's ode to the most beautiful, romantic and elegant city on the planet is a blissful Parisian reverie. In its opening pictorial, establishing cityscapes populated with bikers, baguettes and berets sumptuously fill the frame. The sequence seems to go on too long and then it becomes clear that a day has passed, and morning has turned to night. The Eiffel Tower now stands alone, illuminated with shimmering fluorescents, against the night sky. With the quintessential romantic twang of a guitariste as its score, Midnight In Paris's wordless prologue is a short film all its own.

Gorging himself on French culture, Allen may consider himself an intellectual -- though some might call him a "pseudo-intellectual"-- here he's more of a starry-eyed fantasist than anything else. The film's protagonist is a self-proclaimed hack screenwriter named Gil (Owen Wilson) who's enraptured with Paris's beauty, but he longs for its romantic golden age of the 1920's. He's visiting the City of Lights with his fiancee, Inez (Rachel McAdams), and her parents. When we first meet the couple they're standing on a bridge over a pond -- the very pond Monet painted his impressionist masterpiece, A Bridge Over A Pond Of Water Lilies. The two look as if they were harmoniously painted into the canvass by Allen's careful composition. The superimposition of art and its admirer is the key to Allen's whimsey. On a lonely Paris sidewalk at midnight, a mysterious Model T picks Gil up and drops him off in the roaring twenties. Jazz, flappers, the charleston: Gil is absorbed into a lost milieu. Paris, then a mecca of artists, writers and avant garde filmmakers, has Gil rubbing elbows with lost generation novelists like Hemingway and Fitzgerald. He visits Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates) and sits in on a studio session with Pablo Picasso. In no time he's having drinks with Dali and Bunuel, inspiring melting clocks and The Exterminating Angel. With the artists come their muse, Adriana (Marion Cotillard), a french delicacy materializing out of an ad for "french cool" with her cigarette holder, flapper slip and curly take on Louise Brooks' mop top. Gil and Adriana connect based on their shared love of the past -- Adriana calls the twenties dull and dreams of the 1890's, Paris's "real golden age".

Midnight In Paris is a refreshing slice of sophisto-com cinema for a few important reasons. First of all, it finds Allen shaking the crotchety nihilism that has marked so much of his recent work. 2005's Match Point had its shocking, murderous pleasures and 2008's Vicky, Christina Barcelona had classy as well as filthy eroticism; but both were rife with grumpy cynicism and arc-less characterizations. Midnight In Paris perfumes romantic fancy and childlike wonder. It has the pristine, ecstatic perspective of a newborn culture-connoisseur discovering art, literature, music and romance for the first time. Yet it also rewards the literate with its intertexuality. (You'll enjoy it more if you can pick Josephine Baker out of a crowd than if you can't). Wilson's expression has both qualities: star-struck disbelief and kid-in-a-candystore elation combined. Like a kid at Disney Land who can't believe he just saw Mickey Mouse ("I've only seen you on TV"), Gil gushes over T.S. Eliot ("The Wasteland is like my mantra!") with the same elan and enthusiasm.

Allen understands that Paris can have that kind of magic -- due to the palpable timelessness of its cobblestone streets and medieval architecture. And because Allen plays so loosely with the "rules" of his time-warp conceit, the whole film becomes a dreamy, grown-up fantasy about meeting the long lost idols of our most ethereal English class day-dreams. Is Gil really in the 1920's? Or is he in his own ideation of its hypothetical awesomeness? -- a time before Zelda Fitzgerald went nuts and Ernest Hemingway drank himself to death. There's a delectable flavor and airiness about Allen's hilariously transportive new comedy. It's a giddy plaisir for the "pseudo-intellectual" in us all. Midnight In Paris has a unique ability, it can make educated adults feel a little like kids at Disney Land.

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