The opening montage in "Midnight in Paris"a sprawling collection of snapshots of the City of Light during a single day's magical journey into nightimmediately sets one's expectations too highly. Doing for his new French setting what he did for New York City in 1979's "Manhattan," writer-director Woody Allen (2009's "Whatever Works
") knows, if nothing else, how to capture a particular location on film with all the rapturous nostalgia and dreamlike eloquence he can muster. The rest of the picture, alas, is disappointing, lacking the reverence needed to make a lasting impact about the weighty themes the prolific filmmaker wishes to explore. The desire to create great art, the struggle to find happiness in one's present, and the struggle to make a good life in the inevitable shadow of a person's mortality are all fascinating topics, but in "Midnight in Paris," Allen incorporates them with far too light a touch and in the face of a fairly consistent stream of quick-witted but increasingly tedious one-liners. Every time the film begins to provoke thought, it seems to pull back from what it's trying to do, hesitant to lend respective gravity to the lead character, his relationships, and the inner conflicts he's facing. Allen would rather go for the punchline herestabs at comedy that are rarely ever funnyand it's a mistake that costs the outcome severely.
Los Angeles screenwriter Gil Pender (Owen Wilson) is vacationing in Paris with fianceé Inez (Rachel McAdams) and her stodgy parents John (Kurt Fuller) and Wendy (Mimi Kennedy), with each passing moment so taken by his surroundings that he begins thinking aloud about a life where he could drop everything back in the States to carve out a place for himself as a novelist in the so-called "most romantic city in the world." With Inez itching to explore the nightlife after running into a couple of acquaintances, know-it-all intellectual Paul (Michael Sheen) and girlfriend Carol (Nina Arianda), Gil gets lost on his way back to their hotel and, at the stroke of midnight, is transported back to the 1920s. Befriending F. Scott Fitzgerald (Tom Hiddleston) and brash wife Zelda (Alison Pill); confiding in Ernest Hemingway (Corey Stoll) about his literary ambitions and fears for the future; getting writing advice from Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates)Gil is over the moon by his mystical good fortune, returning each night to the "Golden Age" after slugging through another 21st-century day with the understandably disbelieving Inez. Through Gil's relationship with aspiring fashion designer Adriana (Marion Cotillard) in the '20s, herself wishing she had lived in the era of 1890s' Belle Époque, he ultimately comes to realize the importance of making the most of one's here-and-now and to stop longing for the past.
In "Midnight in Paris," Gil has either somehow found a way to defy the laws of time or has gone completely bonkers. As is his way, Woody Allen doesn't concern himself with the logic (or lack thereof) of his plot. Indeed, if the viewer is expecting him to realistically explore time travel and the cause-and-effect that occurs with changing what has already happened in the past, forget it. This bizarre anomaly of entering into a different century during the witching hour and then just as seamlessly returning to the present before the night is out is treated mostly as comedic fodder. As he meets one legend after anotherhe also runs into Cole Porter, Salvador Dali and Pablo Picassoeach is more colorful than the last, an intentional exaggeration of the real people based on Gil's assumed imaginings of how they would be if he ever met them. A solid chunk of "Midnight in Paris" revolves around these dips into flights of fancy and, once the novelty of its premise wears off, it is difficult to ever get too involved in these scenes. We know there is no way that Gil can be with 1920s-era Adriana and that, eventually, he will have to make the decision to remain in modern times. We wait patiently for this moment to arrivea surefire sign that Gil has learned from his experiences and is embracing his life in 2010but Allen wrongfully dodges it and jumps right into his pat ending. The film cries out again and again for more levity, for more of an emotional follow-through, but there is none of that. Allen has made a lark, instead, and it drains the depth of its themes to the point where only a shallow puddle remains.
When Woody Allen doesn't star in his own films, one can almost be sure that whomever he casts in the lead male role will be asked to basically portray his onscreen alter-ego. This time the honor goes to Owen Wilson (2011's "Hall Pass
"), and it's a nice performance requiring more understatement than the actor usually receives. His Gil Pendler is amiable enough to want to follow, but the movie he's involved in is only intermittently worth the same interest. The screenplay's treatment of Inez, Gil's fianceé, is borderline-sexist in the way that it eventually treats her like an inconsiderate shrew while failing to admonish Gil for making a lot of the same bad decisions. Her parents are Tea Party supporters, so they are stereotypically conceived as having no sense of humor and an ignorance about fine art. Rachel McAdams (2010's "Morning Glory
") deserves better than what she's been given as Inez; it is no doubt an honor to get the chance to work with someone of Woody Allen's caliber, but it's unfortunate that a more multidimensional character couldn't have been written for her.
In an ensemble that sees Adrien Brody (2011's "Wrecked
") receiving only a single scene to make a mark as Salvador Dali, the wonderful cast is more often than not misused. As Adriana, Marion Cotillard (2010's "Inception
") has an expressive face and smoky allure perfect for period pieces, but also enough vulnerability that she never comes off as hard. What is lacking, no fault of Cotillard's, is dramatic potency; there should be a poignancy in her yearnings that doesn't quite materialize. There is so much potential with Tom Hiddleston (2011's "Thor
") and an especially vibrant, loosy-goosy Alison Pill (2010's "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World
") as F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, but they drift into the background soon after they are introduced. Michael Sheen (2010's "Tron: Legacy
"), as the haughty Paul, never grows beyond that of someone at the beck and call of the plot's demands, then disappears. As his girlfriend Carol, whom he eventually cheats on offscreen, Nina Arianda (2011's "Win Win
") is given a thankless task in that the script shows no interest in her feelings or the betrayals being done to her. In equally small but more effective parts, First Lady of France Carla Bruni is a natural fit, blending well into her scenes as a down-to-earth tour guide, while Léa Seydoux (2010's "Robin Hood
") is such a sparkling presence as pretty street vendor Gabrielle it's a shame the film couldn't have simply focused on her and Gil's late-in-the-movie relationship.
"Midnight in Paris" has something on its mindand the overlap between Woody Allen's own hang-ups and Gil's admission that death is his greatest fear will not be lost upon knowledgeable viewersbut is misguided in the angle it takes to delve into them. There were ways of making this same narrative reflective and indelible, but what it's become is fluffily inconsequential. It's difficult to get worked up over a film that is no more than pleasant, flounders potential, and leaves one feeling indifferent above all else. The opening and closing moments of "Midnight in Paris" are visually resplendent. The movie in the middle gets in the way.