Friday, 13 May 2011

'Midnight in Paris' review:

The 64th Cannes Film Festival opened last week with an out of competition screening of Woody Allen's latest, 'Midnight in Paris'. I wasn't in Cannes but managed to see a showing of the film (appropriately enough) in the French capital, where it went on general release later that same day. Maybe it had something to do with the film's local setting - and certainly the ubiquitous posters for it on the city's streets won't have done any harm - but the showing I attended was a sell out, as a diverse crowd flooded in to the main screen of a Pathé multiplex in Montmartre. Of course, it's become a truism that Allen's films are much better appreciated on the continent than in the US/UK (a fact acknowledged by the director himself in 'Hollywood Ending'), but I was still surprised to have to queue up to see a Woody Allen film - and in a mainstream cinema.

'Midnight in Paris' follows Gil Pender (Owen Wilson), a surrogate Woody Allen figure - a Hollywood screenwriter who is in love with a romantic view of the French capital and with an idealised view of the past. He loves the city and its cultural legacy so much in fact, that he wants to get away from his home in California permanently and have a shot at being a "serious writer" - an ambition not supported by his high-maintenance fiancée Inez (Rachel McAdams). Gil wants to take long walks in the rain and sit in left bank cafés working on his novel, but his peace is disturbed by Inez's cynical, right-wing parents and the intrusions of her pretentious, know it all friend Paul (Michael Sheen).

Like Miniver Cheevy before him, Gil feels like a man out of time and wishes he were born in a more intellectual, artistically vital era - for him, the Paris of the 1920s. And it is to that period of time that he finds himself magically transported every night at the strike of midnight, where he mingles with his heroes, among them F. Scott Fitzgerald (Tom Hiddleston), Salvador Dali (Adrien Brody), Ernest Hemingway (Corey Stoll) and Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates). This bizarre twist in the tale - not hinted at in the trailer - that harkens back to Allen's work as a short story writer or his 'Deconstructing Harry' and 'The Purple Rose of Cairo'. Over the course of these late night visits to the romanticised past Gil meets and falls in love with Adriana (Marion Cotillard) and has to decide between the past and the present.

Owen Wilson is fantastic as the central character, with his easy charm and impeccable comic timing working perfectly with this - his best role outside of a Wes Anderson film. Wilson's unpretentious likeability has seen him too often wasted in disposable rom-coms, but he was really made for intelligent roles such as this. He is supported by a brilliant ensemble cast too, with everyone from McAdams to French-Moroccan comic Gad Elmaleh (who brought the house down with his wordless appearance as a private detective) superbly cast. Especially Cotillard (I shouldn't need to tell you how appealing she is a screen actress). But alongside the laid back naturalism of most the performances, it was actually the showiest and most exaggerated turns that thrilled me the most.

Adrian Brody's appearance as Dali caused me to shed tears of laughter. Genius casting making for an inspired cameo. Whilst Corey Stoll as Hemingway was absolutely perfect, with a level of earnestness and intensity that was, for me, hilarious. Praise must also go to Michael Sheen for his slimy portrayal of Paul, a role reminiscent of all the New York pseudo-intellectual archetypes seen in all of Allen's best loved 1970s work. He manages to make the character just the right level of obnoxious and pedantic without seeming over the top and it's a pity he isn't in more than a couple of scenes.

It's the performances rather than the writing that is funniest and 'Midnight in Paris' is perhaps lacking in the sort of deft one-liners that were once the hallmark of Woody Allen's style. And unlike the adored 'Vicky Cristina Barcelona' this won't be up for any Oscars, if only because it's so relaxed and deceptively simple. But 'Midnight in Paris' is every bit as beautiful as anything Allen ever shot with Gordon Willis, and it's a screenplay full of interesting ideas even if they're not all explored with any depth. As the calamitous 'Cassandra's Dream' testifies, Allen can't write "British". But he does the American abroad very well and with this he has given every reason to anticipate his next film, the Rome-set 'The Wrong Picture', with some degree of optimism.

You might say that I was pre-disposed to enjoy 'Midnight in Paris', what with being in Paris and watching the film with an enthusiastic crowd. And you may have a point. And, after a patchy last decade (to put it kindly), it is fair to say my expectations for it were set extremely low - especially given that Allen's last film was utterly abysmal. But for the first time in what feels like a decade, I absolutely loved a new Woody Allen film, almost without qualification. For the first time since childhood I laughed during one of his movies: not knowing laughs of polite recognition, but hearty, belly laughs. For the first time in around a decade, here is a Woody Allen film with imagination.

'Midnight in Paris' has not yet been rated by the BBFC and will probably not see a UK cinema release until 2012. However, the film is currently on general release in France.

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