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Written and Directed by: Woody Allen

Starring: Owen Wilson, Rachel McAdams, Marion Cotillard, Kathy Bates, Allison Pill, Tom Hiddleston, Corey Stoll, Adrien Brody

It is interesting that with Midnight in Paris Woody Allen finally, and explicitly, tells the tale of a man obsessed with the past. Allen’s sensibilities have always been rooted in the past, as many of his films have featured, at the very least, soundtracks of dusty clarinet jazz and characters obsessed with classic figures and writings. Allen has a fixation on the ways of the past, specifically, it seems, with the films, music, writing and aesthetic of the 1920s-30s. Many of his films have been odes to this time, but with Midnight in Paris Allen steps beyond homage and leaps straight into fantasy-fulfilment. Gil (Owen Wilson) is a sell-out Hollywood screenwriter, obsessed with F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, who dreams of being a great novelist and believes he was born 80 years too late. During a visit to Paris with his fiancée Inez (Rachel McAdams), Gil takes a drunken walk through the empty Parisian streets and finds himself transported back in time, where he ends up at a party with Zelda (Allison Pill) and Scott (Tom Hiddleston) Fitzgerald. Gil can’t believe his luck when Ernest Hemingway (Corey Stoll) agrees to deliver his manuscript to Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates). Night after night, Gil returns to rub elbows with all of the greats (all of them) but soon the real reason he continues to return is that he falls in love. But we already knew he’d fall in love, because this is a Woody Allen film after all, right?

My instinct is to hate it but the fact is that I don’t. I want to be able to discard this as a third-rate  effort from the man who once gave the world Annie Hall (1979) but I just can’t seem to convince myself. The idea of travelling back to the Montparnasse of the 1920s to mingle in the famous gathering of some of the world’s most beloved artists and artist-types feels sort of easy. And sure,  Allen’s delivery is rather juvenile at times when the film begins to feel like a parade of avant garde cameos: The Fitzgeralds, Hemingway, Picasso, Gertrude Stein, Luis Bunuel, Matisse, Man Ray, T.S. Eliot, et al. And I’ll admit that the performances of all these famous figures all feel silly, nearly every figure feels like a cartoon caricature; Hemingway only ever talks about fighting, Scott Fitzgerald only ever talks about Zelda, Gertrude Stein is some sort of guru. Attempts to excuse this all as Gil’s dream are thwarted by the strange inclusion of a subplot involving a P.I. who gets lost in the past. There are major issues with the scenes that take place in the present, which just feel so forced. McAdams, a talented actress, seems to struggle with finding even a trace of naturalism in Allen’s dialogue, destroying any chemistry with the other actors and leaving so many scenes feeling lifeless.

Somehow, for all that, I didn’t dislike Midnight in Paris. Allen’s poor handling of the present is forgivable, because it is only a little requisite framework, and the world of Paris in the 20s is, despite itself, just so irresistible. The richness of that world, the energy of the jazz and the parties, the locations, the chatter… is so romantic. There is palpable joy as Allen constructs the ultimate intellectual “what if” in imagining the conversations that would’ve taken place in these rooms full of the 20th Century’s most influential and beloved artists. The broad characterisation of each figure isn’t necessarily a bad thing, for though it initially feels like surface-level character writing, what Allen is really doing is playing at the myth and not the person. Midnight In Paris invites one to give over to the fantasy, to the fun and romanticism of it all, and during the moments when I was able to allow myself to detach in that way I found I was really enjoying what Allen was trying to do.

Allen’s films are distinct for featuring academics who chatter endlessly about Norman Mailer, Sigmund Freud, Greek mythology, Ingmar Bergman, whatever. Allen’s films require the viewer to keep up, to be sharp enough to catch the merely implied thematic depth. The reason Midnight In Paris feels like a sub-par effort is because the film is all surface and satisfaction. What it took me most of the film to accept is that this is not a bad thing, Allen is just trying something new. His characters still talk about Rodin, Parisian architecture, whatever, but this time there is very little that goes unsaid or unseen. This isn’t Allen’s finest achievement, but it shows a hell of a lot more effort and inspiration that much of his work in the last ten years or more. In films like Melinda and Melinda (2004) or You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger (2010) Allen has tried so hard to recapture the spirit of the films he built his career on, but floundered. With Midnight In Paris, at least it feels like Allen is being genuine and delivering a piece in his own, current voice and that he has done so at all is admirable.