When I sat down to watch MIDNIGHT IN PARIS (2011), the latest arrival from Netflix, I knew virtually nothing about it other than it was written and directed by Woody Allen. I figured how could I not watch a romantic comedy with such a great title? I was both surprised and charmed by the film, a delightful piece of movie-making which left me with a smile on my face.
I was entranced from the opening "overture" of sorts, a visual tour of Paris set to some wonderful music; perhaps the idea was borrowed from the opening of THREE COINS IN THE FOUNTAIN (1954), but it has a style all its own. As this section drew to a close I commented to my family that I really hoped it would be a good movie because I sure liked the opening. And happily, it was.
Gil (Owen Wilson) is a successful screenwriter who dreams of putting his career on hold and moving to Paris to write a novel. As Gil tours Paris with his fiancee Inez (Rachel McAdams) and her parents (Kurt Fuller and Mimi Kennedy), it's clear that Gil and Inez are a mismatched couple with very different goals. This problem is underlined when they spend time with Inez's friend Paul (Michael Sheen), a boorish bore of a know-it-all. Inez admires Paul and constantly criticizes her fiance.
Late one evening Gil escapes from socializing in order to walk back to the hotel. The clock chimes midnight and a vintage car pulls up. The passengers invite Gil to come along for a ride, and strange things begin to happen...
Although I tend to be a viewer who likes "spoilers," I have to say this was one of the rare occasions when I enjoyed approaching a film without any idea what it would be about. It was great fun watching the story unfold, and for that reason I'm going to be as vague as possible about most of the film's content and characters.
Other than HANNAH AND HER SISTERS (1986), which I enjoyed, I've always been distinctly uninterested in watching Woody Allen movies and have just seen bits and pieces of things over the years. So I was perhaps a little slower on the uptake than others would be to connect that Owen Wilson's Gil was an Allen-like character. As I watched, I thought I might like the film even better with an actor capable of delving into the part more deeply, with more emotion. And frankly his demeanor didn't seem quite intelligent enough at times to be a successful writer, though it was clear he knew great literature.
Wilson's performance seemed very surface, almost more of a place holder than a three-dimensional character. On the other hand, he was pleasant enough, and his "chill," vaguely surfer boy attitude meant he rolled with whatever happened to him without questioning it. I really liked that the movie didn't spend a whole lot of time worrying about explanations for what he experienced.
For me the film's only other flaw, which happens too often in a film depicting a collapsing relationship, is that the viewer has very little idea what drew Gil and Inez together in the first place. Perhaps it was physical attraction on his part, and on her end the desire to marry someone in the film business and live in Malibu. Perhaps there was initially an element of opposites attracting between the relaxed Gil and brittle, prickly Inez. There's not much more to go on than that. Other than this issue, Allen's script is excellent, both funny and thoughtful; incidentally, it was just awarded the Golden Globe.
The film's many strong points include a superb cast. My favorite supporting player was Kathy Bates, who absolutely nails her role and has some great lines and an upbeat philosophy I liked very much. Corey Stoll was also excellent in his larger-than-life role. Marion Cotillard and Lea Seydoux were both very good as two new women in Gil's life. Adrien Brody, Yves Heck, Allison Pill, and Tom Hiddleston are among the large cast.
Model Carla Bruni, also known as the current First Lady of France, is briefly seen as a tour guide and translator who assists Gil. I seem to recall having read in a London paper that Bruni's part was cut back due to her having difficulty handling the demands of acting, but any struggle on her part isn't apparent on the screen. She's quite charming.
The film's strongest point is the glorious cinematography by Johanne Debas and Darius Khondji. Paris simply glows; I'm not sure it's ever looked lovelier in a film. This is surely one of the most visually beautiful films released in years; the depiction of Paris is art in and of itself. The jazzy score adds the perfect finishing touch.
The movie left me with a smile on my face and very glad I'd invested 94 minutes in watching it. In fact, I'm going to buy my own copy so I can watch it again in the future. There's a lot to take in, and I think the second time around I'll notice things I missed on the first viewing.
Last May Kenneth Turan wrote in the Los Angeles Times, "Here's a sentence I never thought I'd write again: Woody Allen has made a wonderful new picture...and it's his best, most enjoyable work in years." I also found, after writing my own review, that he agreed with me about approaching this film blindly: "This is also a film with an unanticipated twist, so the less you know about it the better. Try to see it immediately, before well-meaning friends tell you more than they should. MIDNIGHT IN PARIS is too charming to be ruined by anything, but this is a case where ignorance really is bliss."
Parental Advisory: This film is on the mildest end of PG-13, due to some risque conversation and smoking. With a little judicious editing here and there, it would have been downright old-fashioned and family friendly. It has a sweet, upbeat spirit and is even a bit educational.
MIDNIGHT IN PARIS is available on DVD. It's also available for rental from Amazon Instant Video.
Update: The Oscar nominations are out, and MIDNIGHT IN PARIS was nominated for four Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, and Best Art Direction. I'm rather shocked it did not receive a nomination for Best Cinematography.