'Midnight in Paris': a charming Woody Allen rom-com in a gorgeous setting and context

Owen Wilson and Rachel McAdams in Woody Allen's movie Midnight in Paris."

Anybody need a Cannes opener?

The French did, and Woody Allen's "Midnight in Paris" lifted the lid quite nicely last month. Out popped a bon-bon of a rom-com that should now charm Yankee audiences as much as the Euro-chic.

The last Allen movie to kick off France's big annual film festival was his hilarious "Hollywood Ending" back in 2002. This Cannes opener is a bit more electric, equipped with a cameo appearance by the French first lady.

Hero of Mr. Allen's flight of fancy at hand is frustrated Hollywood hack screenwriter Gil (Owen Wilson) -- frustrated, specifically and ironically, by his huge success. What he really wants is to be a novelist, and where he really wants to live is in 1920s Paris -- a time and place with which he is obsessed.

The film's stunning montage-prologue takes us ever so slowly and swooningly from the Parisian morning to its eponymous midnight hour: Gil is there on a trip with his beautiful fiancee Inez (Rachel McAdams). If anybody ever needed a premarital getaway to the city of his dreams, it's Gil -- but he didn't need the company of his in-laws-to-be-from-hell. Inez and her Tea Party parents (Kurt Fuller and Mimi Kennedy) are there strictly for the shop-till-you-drop opportunity.

To make matters worse for Gil, they bump into Inez's ex, Paul (Michael Sheen), a pedantic expert on everything. Wine, art, literature, Versailles, Etruscan stemware? You name it, Paul is an authority on it. There is nothing the man doesn't know and isn't eager to tell you about at length. And he'd be glad to read and critique Gil's great-American-novel-in-progress.

Gil wants no one's literary opinion except maybe Hemingway's. But for that he'd need a vehicle that could take him back in time. Angst, and ye shall receive: Wandering around Montmartre in a drunken haze at midnight, Gil is stunned when a 1920s-something Peugeot full of retro-revelers pulls up and invites him along for an evening on the town with the vintage A-list artistes.

Then and thereafter, everybody who is/was anybody turns up -- more brilliant American emigres and European geniuses than you can shake a breadstick at. Scott and Zelda (Alison Pill and Tom Hiddleston) are there. So is Hemingway (the terrific Corey Stoll), at his most earnest: "Have you ever hunted?" he asks Gil. "Only for bargains," comes the reply.

Kathy Bates dispenses instant insightful literary analysis as Gertrude Stein (a ruse is a ruse is a ruse), while Picasso broods and Adrien Brody does Dali and even the reclusive T.S. Eliot shows up -- "Prufrock's like my mantra!" gushes Gil.

As the Mr. Allen surrogate, Owen Wilson utters Gil's guilelessly clever lines with Woodyesque cadences and an innocent wonder reminiscent of his characters in "Wedding Crashers" and "The Royal Tenenbaums." He's never better than in his final confrontation with Inez and her parents, in their matching hotel bathrobes.

But Mr. Wilson's best match is Marion Cotillard as Adriana -- everybody's muse of the '20s, mistress of Modigliani and Braque as well as Picasso -- as gorgeously alive and carefree as Paris itself. By way of beautiful women, for good measure, Mr. Allen gives us Carla Bruni (aka Madame Nicolas Sarkozy) in the playful role of a museum tour guide.

The film's real star, of course, is Paris, glowing and bewitchingly seductive in all its time eras here, thanks to Mr. Allen's best visual-period rendering since "Purple Rose of Cairo" (1985) and "Bullets Over Broadway" (1994) -- kudos to cinematographer Darius Khondji -- and to brilliant use of such signature Cole Porter tunes as "Let's Fall in Love."

All in all, it's the ultimate neurotic New Yorker's ultimate "Paris, Je t'aime."

Study question: Does anybody HATE Paris? When I took my mother and Aunt Thelmah to the Folies Bergere in the '70s, our haughty waiter seated us at a table with two nuns. On another visit, I dropped my hotel room key down a sidewalk grate, and my resulting visit to the Parisian sewers was not nearly so romantic as the Phantom of the Opera's or the Madwoman of Chaillot's.

Well, never mind. Mr. Allen fell in love with Paris during the shooting of his debut film, "What's New Pussycat?" (1965). He has no real sci-fi interest in time-travel, except as a useful device to plumb his recurring themes of love, longing and the pursuit of a happiness likely to end in pain. This is his pan-artistic meditation on the time-space continuum: Nostalgia as a denial of the painful present (and fear of the dubious future), for people who live in the past... Remember that awful old "Evening in Paris" perfume and talcum powder in the cobalt-blue bottles that we bought our moms and dads (at Woolworth's) for Christmas presents?

One man or woman's Belle Epoque is another's dull present. What's remarkable is that Mr. Allen, at 75, is still making sweet, dreamy, upbeat pictures. This Parisian midnight is Woody's Twilight Zone -- like Rod Serling, in a relaxed mood.

I've said it before and beg your indulgence to say again: The least of Mr. Allen's films are better than the best of the commercial dreck. And "Midnight in Paris" is by no means his least. Notice the PG-13 rating? Got any smart tweens or teens lying around the house? Pry 'em kicking and screaming away from the tube and the cartoon or franchise-sequel caca in the theaters, and drag them to "Paris." See what they make of it.

Just don't dive for any great depth, lest you hit your or their heads on the bottom.

Subscribe to BarryParis.com RSS Feed