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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on DVDs: Midnight in Paris (Four Stars)

Midnight in Paris (Also Blu-ray) (Four Stars)

U.S.-France; Woody Allen, 2011 (Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

Midnight in Paris (Four Stars)
U. S./France: Woody Allen, 2011
Midnight in Paris is a funny valentine to the City of Light, a sweet, jazzy fairy tale about the wonders of Parisian art and artist cliques in the ‘20s — a time when you could actually (if you were connected enough) go to a party at Gertrude Stein’s and trade quips or stares with Ernest Hemingway and Pablo Picasso. It shows us writer/director Woody Allen at his current best — which, for me, is plenty good enough. We keep complaining that our movies don’t have enough brains, wit, ingenuity, art and personal feeling, that they’re not made for adults. Here’s one that is. Treasure it.

Allen’s new movie, deservedly praised by almost everybody, begins with the same kind of affectionate cinematic tribute to its city and setting, Paris, that Woody once gave to New York, New York in the opening of his 1979 masterpiece Manhattan: a delicious montage of well-loved if touristy Parisian sights (the Eiffel Tower, the Seine) with one of his period musical favorites playing piquantly in the background. In Manhattan, it was Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue“; in Midnight in Paris, it’s a jazz piece by the great saxophonist (and expatriate American in Paris) Sidney Bechet.

After putting his heart on his sleeve and sending us a postcard of it, Allen then tells a story which, in some ways, mixes the romantic themes of Manhattan with the celebrity fantasies of The Purple Rose of Cairo and Zelig. As in Manhattan, he spins a story about a hack mass media writer and would-be intellectual who dreams of being a better artist, and is hooked up with the wrong woman. But he also adds “Cairo”-like blends of reality and fantasy and Zelig-style fantasy encounters with his special ‘20s Parisian artistic idols or comic pets.


It’s a delightful little humorous day-dream (or night-dream) of Allen’s, and, along with his great cast, he‘s made us an irresistible present of it. The affably loose and boyishly hilarious Owen Wilson is Hollywood sell-out blockbuster screenwriter Gil, the Woody stand in, and an unusually good one. Gil, who might be Annie Hall‘s cousin, has a sharp-tongued, narcissistic fiancée, Inez (played knowingly and nastily by Rachel McAdams) and we can soon see, eve if he can’t, that she’s the wrong woman for him — and that her Tea Party apologist parents John and Helen (sour Kurt Fuller and go-along Mimi Kennedy) are even wronger in-laws.

Gil’s prospective new family takes potshots at everything French, but Gil, oblivious, gets thoroughly dazzled by the attractions of Paris, despite the annoying presence of Inez’s pompous ex, intellectual/poseur Paul (Michael Sheen, right on) — who makes fun of nostalgia, makes fun of Paris, of art and of Gil, and may be trying to reactivate his “ex” status with Inez. It’s a California Francophile vs. the snobs from Hell. Paul is a condescending intellectual; Inez an unsympathetic rich girl; and John and Helen are the typical got-rocks, proudly philistine Americans who want to put Paris in its place.

But suddenly it’s midnight. Gil is left alone, a little sloshed, after Inez has gone off to “dance” with Paul. As he Owen-Wilsonishly sprawls near the cobbled street, a chic 20s-style roadster pulls up, and two enthusiastic bon vivants invite him to a party: Mr. and Mrs. Fitzgerald (played by Tom Hiddleston of Thor and Alison Pill). Amazingly, this glittering couple turns out to be the real “Lost Generation” novelists Scott and Zelda, and, at the party to which they take Gil, there are more stars: an unabashedly macho, likable, full-of-himself fellow novelist named Ernest Hemingway (Corey Stoll, very good ), and a bald, intense painter named Pablo Picasso (Marcial di Fonzo Bo), among many others. At the piano, playing “Let’s Do It,” with a smile brimming with innuendo, is the real Cole Porter.

Later, at other parties and other midnights, Gil will meet, to his increasing bedazzlement, the legendary surrealist painter Salvador Dali (Adrien Brody, absolutely fantastic), the famous avant-garde photographer Man Ray (Tom Cordier), and Dali’s taboo-shattering Un Chien Andalou collaborator, surrealist filmmaker Luis Bunuel (Adrien de Dan). Even the relative nobodies are incandescent: An artist’s model named Adriana (Marion Cotillard) has been mistress and muse to Modigliani and Picasso, and may have Gil on her list as well. Our hostess — with, artistically speaking, “the mostest“ — is Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates, wonderful).

Tell me you don’t want to go to that party, or this movie. It’s a marvelous idea, and Allen does it with loving affection and razor-keen wit. The images (mostly shot by Darius Khondji) are lovely, the mood is mellow and enticing, the cast is having a ball, the jokes are convivial and smart. This movie is exactly what we want it to be, and it ranks with Woody Allen’s best: Annie Hall, Manhattan, The Purple Rose of Cairo, Broadway Danny Rose, Hannah and her Sisters, Husbands and Wives, and Vicky Cristina Barcelona.

One caveat. It doesn’t really make sense to me that Gil accepts this astounding “Twilight Zone” time-travel excursion so readily, with so little hesitation — that the Fitzgeralds just walk him into a party with Hemingway, Picasso and Gertrude Stein, and that he doesn’t at first, well, question their sanity (and everybody else‘s ), that he doesn’t accept it all more gradually.

Actually, Allen probably may have tossed away a good comedy scene by not having Gil be more skeptical at first. (“You’re Cole Porter? You’re Gertrude Stein? You’re Ernest Hemingway? Yeah, yeah, sure. Tell me, Ernest: What are you working on these days? Having any movable feasts? Show me your war wounds, buddy. Show me your….My God, you are Ernest Hemingway!”)

That scene may be a little hokey. But I’m sure Woody could have milked a lot of laughs and chuckles out of something similar.

That’s my only complaint. And it’s a quibble. The rest of Midnight in Paris is often blissfully funny, wantonly witty, full of fun and love and music and all the sights of Paris.

Woody loves to live in the past, or to recreate it, and if you’re a movie lover, you probably have some of the same malady too. The movie slakes those thirsts repeatedly. One priceless moment: Luis Bunuel‘s (De Dan’s) utter bewilderment when Gil describes to him the plot of Bunuel‘s ‘60s Mexican classic The Exterminating Angel. Another: the screw-loose spin Brody puts on the lines “I am Dali!” and “Rhinoceros!” (Could there be an Oscar for best comedy cameo?)

Allen is sometimes damned for pretentiousness — and that charge would seem to fit an American filmmaker who hires France‘s first lady (Carla Bruni) to play a museum tour guide in his movie. But, after all, he’s a comedian.

Midnight in Paris suggests that nostalgia, and the love of art and artists, is our bridge to the Golden Ages of the past, which we should never forget, but that we should also not miss the Golden (or half golden) age we may be in at the present. He’s not touting some rapt immersion in past lives: he‘s simply, like an artist, bringing back to life people and things he loves, having fun with them, painting them, preserving them if not forever then for as long as the DVDs last.

Whether it’s Paris, or movies, or art, or the Lost Generation, or Woody, or all of them, that you love, this movie should touch you, make you laugh. If you can’t have fun at Midnight in Paris, on this goofy and sublime little voyage to Paris and its past, well, I have nothing more to say. Except: Look, Scott and Zelda are in a boat-ride on the Seine! Who needs liquor when the stars are so bright? As for the rest of us, let’s take a tip from that “You’re the Top” guy, Cole Porter. Let’s do it.

Woody Allen and Cast at Cannes

Extras: Featurette Midnight in Cannes; Photo gallery. x

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon