Midnight in Paris
Directed by Woody Allen
There’s a brilliant moment in a great and unheralded comedy from 1989 called The Tall Guy, in which Jeff Goldblum plays an American actor in London cast as the lead in a West End musical version of The Elephant Man called Elephant! He runs into his former employer, a profoundly nasty English comedian for whom he’d served as a silent onstage foil for years. “The word on the street,” says the English comedian, “is that your makeup is just excellent.”
In the same vein, if I met Woody Allen today, I would say to him, “Congratulations on your new movie, Midnight in Paris! The poster is just excellent.” It shows the actor Owen Wilson walking along the Seine, as the sky above the rooftops blends into van Gogh’s Starry Night. Beautiful, evocative, mystical, and enchanting, the poster for Midnight in Paris may be the best movie ad of our time. It perfectly conjures up the movie’s central conceit: A man of the present day finds himself at night wandering into the Paris of the past.
Alas, the movie is everything the poster isn’t: thuddingly literal, heavy-handed, and, like most of Woody Allen’s magical fancies, entirely bereft of enchantment. Perhaps that’s because the poster is the one aspect of Midnight in Paris for which Allen is not actually responsible.
Indeed, despite rhapsodies of praise from film critics who are now all, consciously or unconsciously, grading Allen’s work on a curve—by which I mean they will always say excessively nice things about an Allen movie now if it doesn’t make you feel cringingly embarrassed for him—Midnight in Paris is a work of value solely because it inspired that poster.
The movie is intended as a love letter to Paris, but its opening montage seems to have been constructed by typing “Paris” into Google Images and then filming all the pictures in the top row—the Arc de Triomphe, the Eiffel Tower, the Seine, the Louvre, the Tuileries. The travelogue aspect of the movie never strays from the obvious: In the course of Midnight in Paris, the characters visit Monet’s backyard, hear a talk about Rodin, tour Versailles, go to Les Halles, and buy books at Shakespeare and Co. The only thing missing is someone saying, “Ooh la la.”
Wilson plays an American screenwriter who takes a walk in Paris one night and climbs into a 1920s taxi to find himself face to face with Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. They take him to a party, and then to a café. He meets Ernest Hemingway, who takes him to meet Gertrude Stein.
And you know what? They’re all just so nice. Oh, maybe Hemingway is a little dramatic. But Stein is a lively, fun, friendly old lady who likes Wilson’s novel, while Fitzgerald calls Wilson “old sport” just like Gatsby. And Zelda? She’s the cutest little magnolia you ever saw, even when she gets sad and tries to throw herself into the river.
The oddity here is that the movie is a direct descendant of a wonderful comedy routine from Allen’s brilliant standup days in the 1960s:
Hemingway had just written his first novel, and Gertrude Stein and I read it, and we said it was a good novel, but not a great one, and that it needed some work, but it could be a fine book. And we laughed over it. Hemingway punched me in the mouth. . . . Francis Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald came home from their wild New Year’s Eve party. It was April. Scott had just written Great Expectations, and Gertrude Stein and I read it, and we said it was a good book, but there was no need to have written it, because Charles Dickens had already written it. We laughed over it, and Hemingway punched me in the mouth.
The problem with Midnight in Paris is that nobody punches Owen Wilson in the mouth.
Allen’s comedy routine was a spoof of the ludicrously overripe way people talked about Paris in the 1920s. The thing is, Midnight in Paris is just another example of that fatuous romanticization. It’s almost as though the young Woody Allen traveled in a time machine half a century into the future, saw the movie he himself would make in his 78th year, and then returned to 1964 to make glorious sport of that same movie.
There are only two things that make the movie really come to life—two performers, one marvelously naturalistic and one delightfully stylized. The naturalistic performer is the movie’s putative villain, a sexy and materialistic all-American philistine played by Rachel McAdams. Saddled with most of Allen’s rather ghastly expository dialogue, this very, very interesting actress makes the words she speaks sound like something an actual human being might really say and completely transcends Allen’s two-dimensional caricature.
The other triumphant turn is by Adrien Brody, the Oscar-winning star of The Pianist. He has a single three-minute scene as a pop-eyed, cheerful, lavishly accented Salvador Dalí, going on about how Wilson reminds him of a rhinoceros.
For a moment, just a moment, Midnight in Paris threatens to punch Owen Wilson in the mouth. And then the moment is gone.
We’ll always have that poster.
John Podhoretz, editor of Commentary, is THE WEEKLY STANDARD’s movie critic.