Woody Allen has made a career out of romanticizing the past all out of proportion, whether it's the frequent use of pre-rock pop and jazz standards on the soundtracks to his films or his characters' deeply dated punch lines that could have come straight from an old Bob Hope movie. It's that tendency -- along with the fact that his movies continue to obsess over the same things (love, death, happiness) that they have for almost 40 years -- that has gotten him accused of being unable to evolve as a filmmaker. His new film, "Midnight in Paris," tries in small part to address such concerns, and weirdly enough it ends up being one of his most crowd-pleasing efforts in a while.
Allen's latest focuses on Gil (Owen Wilson), a screenwriter living in Beverly Hills with a fiancée, Inez (Rachel McAdams), whom he loves even though their connection is a little remote. To be honest, his true love is Paris, where he and Inez are visiting with her parents for a little getaway. Inez is bored by Paris, but Gil is enthralled, endlessly rhapsodizing about its romantic locales and cultural highlights; he constantly wonders aloud what it would have been like to live there during the 1920s.
Then one night, he gets his wish. Walking the streets at midnight, he's picked up by a car with well-dressed gents who seem to be from the Jazz Age. Sure enough, the car transports him to Paris in the '20s, where he meets writers he adores like Hemingway and Fitzgerald while slowly falling for a beautiful young woman, Adriana (Marion Cotillard), who happens to be romantically involved with Pablo Picasso.
With its extended opening sequence where Allen cuts to different shots of iconic Parisian locations to the magical storyline about Gil interacting with a fantasy world, "Midnight in Paris" could be described as "Manhattan" meets "The Purple Rose of Cairo," showing how one man's infatuation with a city (particularly its rich history) is both romantic and problematic. The more Gil gets to hobnob with his cultural heroes and hang out with Adriana, the less appealing his engagement to Inez and his career as a hack Hollywood screenwriter starts to seem. He wants to be a serious novelist, but really, he wants to live in the Paris that only shows up magically for him after midnight.
Anyone who keeps up with Allen's annual cinematic offerings will recognize many familiar story elements in his new movie. Gil is far from the first Allen hero who has to reconcile the disappointments of the real world with his idealized fantasy life. And there are plot points and situations that are easily telegraphed if you've seen his other work. But despite the well-worn nature of some of the storytelling, "Midnight in Paris" is an enchanting little treat, helped by a cast that doesn't try to oversell the movie's modest but consistent comedic pleasures.
As the screenwriter who longs to make more out of his life, Wilson is quite charming playing the Allen stand-in without resorting to the Woody-isms that have doomed other actors' attempts to emulate the director's nebbishy onscreen persona. Instead, Wilson is very natural, getting just the right amount of moony sweetness to make the character intensely likable. He and Cotillard make a nice match, and it's funny to think how the Oscar-winning actress has now appeared in consecutive films (the other being "Inception") in which she plays in part a romantic figment of the main character's imagination. McAdams is forced into the role of an aggressively shallow young woman, but Michael Sheen is wonderfully obnoxious as a smug friend who never misses an opportunity to lecture Gil about the finer points of different revered writers and artists.
Eventually, Gil's two realities will come crashing together, and while it seems that Allen misses a chance to really investigate the implications of what this '20s Paris world is supposed to represent -- as opposed to "Inception," there's no deeper psychological underpinnings to this other reality Allen has created -- it's hard to argue with a movie this warm and inviting. And even though it's true that Allen recycles themes from film to film, he actually does find new twists on his seemingly eternal concerns about what makes life worth living and how one can celebrate the past while still living in the present. In interviews, Allen always laments that he's never made a masterpiece that could rival the great directors he reveres. That's up for debate, but movies like "Midnight in Paris" are hardly anything to be ashamed about making: They're funny and thoughtful and they move along briskly without insulting your intelligence. Those are worth something too, aren't they?