Monday, July 11, 2011

Midnight in Paris

Many of us Baby Boomers grew up with Woody Allen. I thought Bananas (1971) was so funny I dragged my parents—and my baby sister—to see it, and was somewhat embarrassed during the bogus under-the-sheets sex scene narrated by Howard Cosell. From that film I also remember a few of the pronouncements of the Latin American dictator. “From now on, Swedish will the national language.” “From now on, everyone must wear their underwear on the outside!” Also a few jokes about leprosy. Memory fades.

When Annie Hall was advertised as Woody’s “breakthrough” movie, I knew there was trouble ahead. The maker of Sleeper and Love and Death really didn’t need to “break through” to anything. He had already arrived.

Annie Hall
holds up very well; I’ve seen it several times since. The jokes work and the plot works. It’s a classic. Tony Roberts and Diane Keaton add a lot to the film’s specific gravity. But Woody’s later career is all but foreshadowed near the end when we see a few scenes from a high school theater production. The romance is hackneyed, the acting in stilted.

Many of Woody’s subsequent films are like that, from Hannah and Her Sisters (1986) up to the vastly over-praised Vicky Christina Barcelona, which seemed to me like it was largely cribbed from an adolescent woman’s private journal. In short, beautiful people cheating on one another. Broadway Danny Rose (1984) might be the best of the bunch. I saw it again recently and it struck me as a minor masterpiece, both visually and conceptually. (I’d like to see Stardust Memories (1980) again, just to make sure.)

That having been said, let me hasten to add that Midnight in Paris is a delightful film, bringing Woody’s strengths into play while minimizing his (dare I say it) somewhat puerile take on human relationships.

Woody’s two great strengths are his shtick and his nostalgic romanticism. His two great weaknesses are that his plot-lines are driven by the most commonplace romantic impulses and imbroglios, and that everyone in his films ends up talking like he talks. (Mia Farrow was the worst.)

In Midnight in Paris, the focus is on a single character, a novelist named Gill (Owen Wilson), and his affection for the era during which Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Stein, and all the rest were living the life of artistes in Paris. By a strange quirk of fate, he ends up traveling to that time period. (This is the imaginative element that had been lost from Woody’s films for so long. Remember the giant strawberries in Sleeper?)

It’s true that Gill talks just like Woody talks. But it would spoil the effect if Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Stein also talked like Woody. So Woody is forced to create characters different from himself, and he (or the actors) do a very god job of it. The charm lies in the fact that these characters are comic parodies of themselves, while also seeming exactly like themselves. Thus Hemingway is ridiculously blunt and forthright, Fitzgerald is suave and obliging, Zelda is pleasantly scatterbrained and direly suicidal, etc. etc. We are approaching the brilliant realm of Love and Death, with its ridiculous glosses on Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. “I never want to get married. I only want to get a divorce.”

Adrian Brody, in the role of Salvador Dali, is probably the best of the lot. And Gill’s late-night café conversation with Dali, Bunuel, and Man Ray might well be the best scene in the film. (Yes, but where, I ask you, is Ford Maddox Ford?)

And then we have Marion Cotillard, in the role of Picasso’s mistress Adriada, who hits it off quite well with Gill. She has a remarkable screen presence—which may explain why she is one of only two actresses to have won a “best actress” Academy Award for a film shot in a foreign language. (The other was Sophia Loren.)

She isn’t classically beautiful, in the manner of the ageless Medusa Catherine Deneuve, but is infinitely intriguing. (She was also good in the under-rated Ridley Scott film, also set in France, A Good Year, playing opposite Russell Crowe.)

Meanwhile, the modern-day sequences with Gill, his fiancé (the winsome Rachael McAdams) , and her parents, are lame and predictable—though there are quite a few good son-in-law one-liners scattered here and there to keep us amused. Wilson himself is pretty lame and predictable in many of these scenes too. The idea that this person might ever have written even a chapter of a novel seems rather hard to believe.

Similarly, Woody gives us no reason to believe that Gill and his fiancé ever liked each other much, though this allows him one of his classic Allen-esque falling-off remarks. Gill is trying to explain the relationship to the mysterious Adriana: “We agree on most things, on the big things…Actually, we agree on the little things. We both like Indian food…Well, not all Indian food…we both like pita bread.”

It’s easy to imagine Woody Allen saying that. And Owen Wilson does a good job of delivering those lines, too. Plot and character development are being thrown out the window here in the interest of the comic sketch. But that, after all, is what Woody Allen does best. Why not settle back and enjoy it? And while we’re at it, why not give a round of applause to someone who obviously loves Europe, and “old-fashioned” literature in which romance and heroism command the spotlight—with a touch of Surrealism here and there for good measure.

No comments: