No subject is terrible if the story is true and if the prose is clean and honest.
There is something in a person that will yearn for the golden days. You know the ones. Before. When everything was better. The art was better, the culture was better, the people were better, the world was better. It was always better, back then. There weren’t the social, political, cultural problems that we have today. Everybody was happy and awesome. Owen Wilson‘s Gil feels this was about the 1920’s in Paris. That’s when all the great writers lived and Gil, a neurotic Hollywood screenwriter, wants to be there – or then – instead of here and now. And it’s an alluring proposition. What writer wouldn’t want to hang out with F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway? Who wouldn’t want to commiserate with Dali and Picasso about your love problems? There’s no denying that the 1920’s in Paris were a happening time. But would you want to live there?
It’s an idea we’ve all had. Woody Allen (in the first of his that I’ve seen, shamefully) explores it by giving Gil the opportunity to live life in the 20’s. After a quick car ride through the magical streets of Paris he finds himself at a party where Cole Porter is the musical accompaniment. The real Cole Porter. He gives his novel to Gertrude Stein for criticism and inspires Luis Buñuel‘s The Exterminating Angel. He drinks with Fitzgerald and Hemingway and takes an art history lesson from Picasso which he later regurgitates during a modern segment. It’s a fun time. As his late night visits to late years go on he meets an enchanting young Parisian woman, Adriana, played by Marion Cotillard. These two begin to meet up more and more and their attraction grows. It gets to the point where Gil wonders whether it’s cheating on his wife, the beautiful Rachel McAdams, to be with a girl from the 1920’s. It’s kind of slight but also kind of important.
That really describes the film. Kind of slight but also kind of important. I don’t mean important like it will change the way the world works or have and deep cultural impact, but its viewers should find themselves thinking about some of the ideas in the film. See, Adriana thinks that the glory days were the Belle Époque, some 50 years earlier. She, too, is trapped in thinking that the present is just not good enough and that yesteryear was better in some ephemeral way. And when those magical Paris streets give Gil and Adriana the chance to go to the Moulin Rouge during it’s heyday they gladly do so. But it’s here that Gil realizes the key point of the film and the thing that makes it important. This kind of idealism is just a combination of foggy memories and insecurity with the present. The toils of today is what makes living worth it. We are a product of our times and as much as we’d like to be elsewhen we have to come to grips with the fact that we are built to live today. Olden days might seem better but things were just as bad then, if not worse. Yeah, the 1920’s seem like a cool time to be but we know that it was a hard time for a lot of people, too. Hell, Hemingway was probably only as good as he was because he went through a lot of crap in WWI. There’s something about the struggles that make the highs better. And it’s fine to look back and identify what might have been better if only to apply it to your modern life.
That’s not to say this film is a serious treatise on the perils of nostalgia. It is a Woody Allen movie, after all, and the jokes are hilarious. Tom Hiddleston‘s Fitzgerald, Alison Pill’s Zelda Fizgerald, Corey Stoll‘s Hemingway, and Adrien Brody‘s Dali were highlights, each playing the myth and the person in small amounts of screen time while highlighting Allen’s superb screenplay. I’d watch a movie with Brody’s Dali and Stoll’s Hemingway saying things at each other for 90 minutes. There’d be talk of rhinocerous confrontations and war wounds. It’d be great. The film remains funny throughout, though the modern day stuff is a little less interesting. I get that it’s supposed to be a bit on the boring side so we’ll see what Gil sees in the 1920’s section but purposefully lifeless is still lifeless. Only Michael Sheen‘s pompous professor character brings the consistent funny in the early goings, establishing Gil as a lowly writer-for-hire trying his hand at “real literature”. Here is where the slight criticism comes in. The revelation is not earth shattering. The perils are not all that perilous. The jokes are not side-splitting. There’s some romantic drama but even that doesn’t seem to matter all that much. This isn’t a knock, really. I’m the guy calling Winnie the Pooh the best film of the year so far and that has little to nothing going on in terms of drama or deep meaning. It just makes for a movie that could slip out of your mind if you’re not careful. Midnight in Paris is a quick, fun, thoughtful movie that is worth seeing and worth taking the lesson from but ends up being a just little too minor for its own good.