How many of us have often wondered about the greenness of other grasses? If we’d been born into another time and place, how different would our lives have been? Gil (Owen Wilson) understands this question with a singular focus that borders on obsession. He’s having an affair that began with the suddenness of love at first sight. The object is Paris, a city so glorious in Gil’s romantic, if slightly naive, eyes, that if it were a woman, he’d probably strip and make love to it. He’s enamored with the lights and couples noodling in sidewalk cafes, and the history of his greatest idols — Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Gertrude Stein — who haunted these streets long before they became “classics” on a Barnes & Noble bookshelf. Their lives must have been charmed, Gil thinks, creating their finest work with great skill and admiration, while bathing in Bohemian culture. What greater inspiration does he need to move away from the mundanity of writing Hollywood screenplay hack and finally pen his great American novel?
Too bad his fiancee, Inez, who’s particular brand of awfulness is so rarely seen in romantic comedies, doesn’t see things quite the same way. As played by Rachel McAdams, who was so sunny in Morning Glory, she aspires to a level of condescension so supreme that it attains a quality of art no less skilled than Gil’s icons were. When he tries to explain that he no longer wants to be a Hollywood lackey, she responds with vague cruelty: he’s been doing it so long, why not just keep on doing it? She has no faith in Gil, essentially viewing him as a failure. And she can’t understand his love for Paris, a city she views through an opposite lens — overcrowded and overrated. So do her parents, the boorish Helen and John (Mimi Kennedy and Kurt Fuller), who seem to have trained their daughter in the ways of disdain as if she were preparing for battle. John and Helen don’t think much of Gil, either, and never fail, in less discreet ways even than Inez, to tell him as much. This is a family of psychic vampires. How much soul-sucking is one man supposed to take? Enter Inez’s friend Carol from the USA, who’s visiting Paris with her boyfriend Paul, an insufferable know-it-all with the general facts to back up his claims. When the foursome go on a sight-seeing trip, Gil and Paul engage in a pathetic game of oneupmanship like petulant kids. Inez, instead of defending Gil, begs him not to embarrass her because Paul is smart and knows things.
All of this might sound like a dreary set-up, and not the least bit funny. But in the hands of Woody Allen, Midnight in Paris evolves into a sharp, witty, and often sad fairytale exploration of a man who wants nothing more than to be any place other than where he is now.
It’s no surprise then that Gil, while relaxing alone and drunk on a staircase, is summoned to a classic car just as the clock above strikes midnight. The man inside introduces himself as Fitzgerald. Scott Fitzgerald (Tom Hiddleston). Gil thinks this is a joke. But the woman in the car does bear an uncanny resemblance to Fitzgerald’s wife, Zelda (Alison Pill, very good here), a tough-talking southerner with a seemingly refillable drink in her hand. Gil is whisked off to a party that looks like something out of a 1920s retro ball. He’s told the party is for Jean Cocteau, the writer who had not yet conceived of Orpheus. Gil looks to the piano and thinks the pianist looks remarkably like Cole Porter. Comprehension sets in, and Gil takes in this information with a modicum of surprise. Later, at a bar, he’s introduced to Ernest Hemingway (Corey Stoll), a violent but brilliant drunk. And after that, Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates), who kindly relents to read Gil’s unfinished manuscript. There’s Pablo Picasso, who argues with Stein over the meaning of his newest painting. And Picasso’s mistress, Adriana, played with aloof sadness by Marion Cotillard. Adriana forms the key to Gil’s pseudo-flashback trips, as a woman in love with, and not in love with, a brilliant artist. She’s as lost as Gil is, searching for some meaning in her present time and place. Gil begins to fall in love with her. After another trip in the car, Gil confides his love for Adriana to Man Ray, and Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dali, who had probably not yet shocked the world with their Un Chien Andalou. As an aside, and a bit of mischief on Allen’s part, Gil tells Bunuel to consider making a movie where guests at a dinner party find they can’t leave the room. Bunuel doesn’t understand the point, but Gil tells him to think about it. Decades later, Bunuel would act upon the idea and Gil would have, in some small part, made a fine contribution to the arts.
As his relationship with Inez in the present day begins to disintegrate, Gil discovers that life on the other side of the wormhole also isn’t quite as perfect as he’d imagined it to be. Adriana, restless and wayward, has her own ideas of how to make a better life. There’s another journey involved here that introduces Gil and us to even more astonishing characters, and causes Gil to rethink how he’s going to restructure the pieces of his life to fit into a world he knows and understands. Owen Wilson, who can be a fine actor in the right role, wrings all the neuroses and insecurities out of Gil as if he were squeezing water from a rag, but is smart enough to infuse him with enough wide-eyed wonder that he ultimately gains our sympathy instead of our pity. This is a character that could only have come from the imagination of Woody Allen, and I suspect that if Allen had been thirty years younger, he would have played the role himself.
This is one of the most eclectic cast of characters I’ve ever seen, and I’ll admit that the conceit could have been a disaster in exponential ways. But Allen treats each of his icons with the love and affinity of a man who understands exactly why they demand respect, filling them with distinct personalities, whether wholly accurate or not, instead of wedging them into the script as gimmicks. The film, as I’ve said, is very funny, but there’s a sort of sad resignation in Gil as he tries to navigate both his present-day life with a woman who has nothing but contempt for him, and another time that he admires but has no clear role for him. In many ways, this is one of Allen’s most heartrending films. I felt for Gil. I wanted him to succeed. I insisted that, by the end, he find his way and put a pen to paper and write, write, write. I suppose you could say I was invested, and isn’t making us care exactly what a good movie is supposed to do?