Cannes (Opening film) – The French adore the little tyke, in spite of some of his more recent cinematic snooze-fests, and now Woody Allen is all ready to let them know that he hearts them too, as he sends a love letter to their capital city and its artistic heritage. Paul Martin horns in on the mutual appreciation society – could this tête-à-tête become a ménage a trois?
Whatever you might think of the movies themselves, a recurring criticism of Woody Allen's recent adventures in Europe (Match Point, Scoop, Cassandra's Dream, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, Vicky Cristina Barcelona) has been that he shoots with the superficial eye of a tourist, highlighting renowned landmarks rather attempting to find an original perspective on the cities in question.
Midnight in Paris does not offer a reprieve from that tendency. Indeed, the opening sequence of Notre Dame, the Eiffel Tower, et al, is akin to leafing through someone's holiday snaps, while further tourist hot-spots, such as the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles, are granted screen-time throughout the movie. However on this occasion there is a motivating ideology at work, as the Paris presented is the romanticised one that exists solely within the sandy-haired cranium of Gil (Owen Wilson), a visiting Californian who – according to the jibes of his fiancé, Ines (Rachel McAdams) – is infatuated with a fictitious ideal of the titular Gallic metropolis.
It's not hard to see the appeal for Gil. He's a writer, y'see, and the world does not want for writers who, at some juncture in their lives, have pounded the pavements of Paris, trying to commune via their footfalls with the lingering ghosts of all those artists – Hemingway, Scott Fitzgerald, Man Ray, amongst a multitude of luminaries – who combined to weave such a compelling, seductive mythology in the first part of the 20th century. They created great work, they drank loads of booze, they had lots of nookie – talk about living the dream, eh?
Visiting France with Ines and her parents (a saturnine Kurt Fuller, a snippy Mimi Kennedy), Gil is desperate to channel that spirit of bohemian creativity as he toils on the first novel which, he reckons, will launch him as a serious artiste, and allow him to leave behind his financially rewarding but unsatisfying work as a Hollywood scriptwriter (as usual with Allen, his theoretically-beleaguered protagonist has a job most folks would saw their right arm off for). And it is from here that Midnight in Paris takes a distinct turn for the unexpected.
One night Gil finds himself roaming the city just as the midnight chimes ring out and, before he knows what's happening, he is bundled into a splendid vintage motor by some revellers, and transported to an old-fashionedly swinging shindig where Fitzgerald himself is knocking back the plonk and Cole Porter is tinkling the ivories (Fitzgerald being played by Thor actor Tom Hiddleston). From that impossible, impossibly dizzying soiree, it is just a swift skip over to a nearby cafe, where the sternly macho Hemingway (Corey Stoll) yet further dazzles the wide-eyed wanderer from the future.
Yes, this is effectively Sleeper in reverse, as a man from the Now wakes up in the Then, albeit with the time-hopping interval set at just 90 years, rather than Sleeper's 200. Curiously, Gil is capable of flitting between eras, in similar fashion to Nicholas Lyndhurst on '90s sitcom Goodnight Sweetheart, and like Lyndhurst's Gary Sparrow, the American scribe finds himself compensating for his relationship troubles in the present by dallying with a woman from the past – in this case, smoky beauty Adriana (Marion Cottillard), a sometime inamorata of both Hemingway and Picasso.
To say this is the most enjoyable movie from Woody Allen for quite some time is a little like praising a recent bout of diarrhoea as being less gut-ruining than some prior ones, but it is meant as a compliment. Wilson, in fully-fledged guileless innocent mode, makes a far satisfying Allen facsimile than Jason Biggs in Anything Else, and much as he fights against it, the Woodster is better when he is in lightly jocular mood than when he tries to craft more dramatic, serious fare, such as Match Point. The third-person narration used in Vicky Cristina Barcelona and Tall Dark Stranger has been wisely ditched too, as formal literary allusions take a back-seat to fashioning a movie that can simply deliver a few giggles.
In terms of those giggles, it is fair to say that the success rate of the gags is variable. Few hit like arrows twanged from the bow of Robin Hood. Equally, only a few miss like a BB gun fired at a pebble from half-a-mile away. Most land somewhere in between, in the well-trodden land of mild amusement. Having said that, Michael Sheen is decent value as the pompous intellectual who gets up Gil's wonky nose, and their rivalry leads to a comic art gallery scene which recalls two classic Allen sequences of yore – the arrival of Marshall McLuhan in Annie Hall, and the peerless “What are you doing Friday night?” gag from Play it Again, Sam.
There are significant problems with the movie, mind. Those seeking deep immersion in the Paris of the '20s will be left frustrated by the superficiality of it all, as an army of deeply complex figures are boiled down to their most basic characteristics. Meanwhile, Gil's behaviour is not always convincing, with him accepting that he has genuinely journeyed back in time without bothering to ask some very basic questions.
Most heinous of all though is the uniformly negative nature of the female roles. McAdams comes off by far the worst, her Ines being such a toxic, tottering whingebag as to make the young actress's task as thankless as that given to a park footballer who has been asked to man-mark Lionel Messi. Why the naturally sunny Gil ever fell for this black hole of joylessness is an utter mystery, although less of one than what the hell Carla Bruni is doing in this movie. Delivering her lines as if she last read the script more than a decade ago, the French First Lady's screen time is wisely kept to a minimum (if Allen had wanted an experienced actor who's close to Sarkozy, he would have been better off casting Silvio Berlusconi).
Even Cotillard's Adriana is poorly realised, it never being made clear what Gil finds so “alluring” about her aside from her obvious physical charms. And while Allen might reckon that the moral of his film is that the grass isn't always greener, by the conclusion you could be forgiven for thinking he's suggesting men should shun every woman they meet who doesn't adhere precisely to their world-view.
Rating on a scale of 5 gallons of Allen: 3
Release date: UK = TBC; US = 20 May
Directed by: Woody Allen
Screenplay by: Woody Allen
Cast: Owen Wilson, Rachel McAdams, Marion Cotillard, Michael Sheen
Cert: UK = TBC; US = PG-13
Running Time: 100 minutes