"Midnight in Paris"

Saturday, June 11, 2011

This isn't a movie I would have normally seen in theatres. For starters, Owen Wilson has a major role in it. And it's a Woody Allen film (I have nothing against him, but ... let's just say I've never paid to watch one). I'd skimmed a few noncommittal reviews from NPR and The New York Times and the premise piqued my interest enough to say "yes" when a friend asked me if I wanted to see it. Apparently skimming reviews is not the same as actually reading reviews, because I had no idea that the element of time travel would be woven into the storyline.

Gil (Owen Wilson) and Inez (Rachel McAdams) in one of her
very many shirt dress and leather belt combos

The film starts out with a montage of clichéd Parisian tourist scenes that heavily overstays its welcome. I want to say the montage goes on for upwards of ten minutes. The viewer is then assaulted by an overly-obnoxious Rachel McAdams in the role of Inez, a wealthy and vacuous all-American beauty (McAdams is in fact Canadian) who has an alarming penchant for preppy shirt dresses accessorized by loosely-fitting leather belts and wedge sandals. And here I thought I would be offended by Owen Wilson, but McAdams does such an excellent job of overacting the annoying Inez that I find myself hating the actress herself and her multitude of shirt dresses in various preppy colors (aka white, cornflower blue, rinse and repeat).

Gil joins Inez and her stuffy friends, Paul (Michael Sheen)
and Carol (Nina Arianda) for a wine tasting
Wilson, by comparison, is charmingly loopy in his portrayal of Gil Pender, Inez's dreamer screenwriter-cum-novelist fiancé. Gil is in the midst of working on a novel about a nostalgia shop and fantasizes about quitting his job and moving to Paris to write. The couple is in Paris for a reason I can no longer remember, and while Gil is entranced by the beauty and romance of the city, Inez fills her vacation with spots of faux-highbrow culture and antiquing for her and Gil's future home. She is often accompanied by her college pal Paul (Michael Sheen), an insufferably (but comically) self-centered "intellectual" and his female friend Carol (Nina Arianda), who arguably turns out to be the most refreshing and sympathetic character in the entire film.

Feeling as claustrophobic as the viewer does, Gil decides one night to take leave of his fiancée and walk the streets of Paris alone. He eventually finds himself lost ... this is when the fun finally begins.

Without explanation (causing the audience to burst into cheerful giggles), something that resembles a T-model Ford follows two modern-day automobiles around a cobblestoned bend and stops before Gil. The doors fly open and a bevy of revelers, armed with champagne, shout and motion at him until he bewilderedly stumbles into the car.

Gil Pender hobnobs with Zelda Fitzgerald (Alison Pill)
They take him to a decadent party where everyone is dressed in 1920s garb. Naturally, Gil gravitates towards two Americans ... who turn out to be (F.) Scott Fitzgerald and his garrulous wife Zelda. And Cole Porter. The Fitzgeralds overlook Gil's modern day idiosyncrasies and welcome him into their social circle, leading Gil through 1920s Paris, which he embraces with just as little resistance. The magical night comes to an end as he leaves a bar in which he has just met Ernest Hemingway, and the bar transforms into a laundromat.

Over the course of the next few days (or nights, as it were), Gil rubs elbows with many of his literary idols and their friends: Gertrude Stein, Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dalí, Henri Matisse, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Paul Gauguin ... the list goes on and on. Gil is completely enchanted by his idols, but as it turns out, it is not a literary figure or celebrity who grabs his attention -- it's Picasso's muse, Adriana (Marion Cotillard).

It takes a couple of awkward scenes for Gil to figure out that he is in fact in love with someone from a different time and place and not with his wife-to-be, Inez. (Who could argue with that when Woody Allen has made the contrast so extreme?) Gil decides to try his best to win Adriana over after discovering that she has feelings for him, chronicled in a published copy of her diary he finds at a bookstand along the Seine.

Gil takes to Adriana (Marion Cotillard), Picasso's muse 

It seems everything is going to plan until Adriana falls victim to the very same plot twist that has brought Gil to the 1920s. Together, Gil and Adriana find themselves in "La Belle Epoque," Adriana's own era of choice. Like Gil, Adriana chooses what she sees as a more "glorified" era over her own reality. Ironically, it is this twist that makes Gil come to his senses and leave both Adriana and the past behind. The film draws to a close in a less fantastical but no less cheesy way, but don't worry, I won't give everything away.

The film is quirky, lighthearted and charmant in a way that requires the viewer to suspend his or her disbelief and accept the film at close to face value. But it's chock full of playful literary and cultural references, and equally full of delightful bit performances from an all-star cast, including Kathy Bates, Adrien Brody, and even the French president's wife, Carla Bruni. We only really get to scratch at the surface of each of the infamous characters, but perhaps the whimsical fantasy is best left a mystery.

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