Woody Allen loves Jazz-Age Paris
Back in 2002 during the junket for I Spy, Owen Wilson appeared distracted. As he fielded questions he took long pauses and the twinkle in his eyes hinted at unspoken responses, tales he could have told but knew better than to share because it was likely we jaded critics and writers would never believe them. Wilson was the good time golden boy, the slacker-surfer prince, but there were rumbling clouds of discontent darkening the horizon the kingdom.
Wilson weathered the storms, smiling his way through a series of mainstream fare that seemed intent on putting our minds (and quite possibly his own) at ease. His presence guaranteed a good time, a bit of wit, and his laid-back roguish charm.
Now, almost a decade later, that halting stammer is back; his eyes gleam again and there is concern in his demeanor, but all is most definitely well because Wilson has a guardian angel and mentor who knows a thing or two about that same anxious delivery, and how to make it a winning trait.
Woody Allen must have seen or heard something in Wilson’s performances in his collaborations with Wes Anderson (The Life Aquatic, The Darjeeling Limited, Fantastic Mr. Fox) that reminded him of himself (granted, a looser, more crookedly handsome West Coast version of himself) and snatched Wilson away from the Hollywood spotlight for a chance to wander the streets and alleys of the City of Lights.
Midnight in Paris is a love letter to the city at night and the nostalgia for by-gone days, but it realizes even as it celebrates these elements, especially the past, there is a trap in falling for the romance and romantic notions. Nostalgia, we are told, is denial of the present, the harsh realities, the swift movement forward that actually obliterates the now and seeks to erase everything that has come before.
And yet, that is exactly what Wilson, as the frustrated screenwriter and would-be novelist protagonist, has eyes for; the stories and experiences of the past. He escapes his contemporary life with his fiancée (Rachel McAdams), her pedantic friend (Michael Sheen) and her staunchly traditional parents (Kurt Fuller and Mimi Kennedy) for nights with Hemingway (Corey Stoll, who perfectly channels the literary voice of the great writer), Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates) and the muse of muses Adriana (Marion Cotillard). Wilson lets us see this world, these possibilities in the bemused expressions of his character; he shares these experiences with us because he and Allen want this love of the past to live. They want to usher in a new age.
To know and love the present and the future, we need to appreciate what has come before and Allen, through shrewd casting and a narrative devoted to humorous detail, catches Scott Fitzgerald (Tom Hiddleston) and Zelda (Alison Pill) drinking as Cole Porter (Yves Heck) tickles the ivories and sings songs of love, while Salvador Dali (Adrien Brody) dreams of rhinos.
There’s not a single wrong note played. Everyone gets caught up in the same sense of denial – the denial of their current selves, their lives beyond these roles – and they make us believe.
Midnight in Paris doesn’t get stuck, though. It, thanks to Wilson, Allen and this community of artists, shines a bright light to the golden ages to come.
Reach DCP film critic T.T. Stern-Enzi