Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (January 25, 2012)
In standard box office terms, 2011’s Midnight in Paris failed to stir up much monetary excitement. It took in $56 million in the US, which placed it 57th on the year-end chart.
However, when compared to other Woody Allen films, Paris looks like an enormous smash. His two prior movies – 2010’s You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger and 2009’s Whatever Works - made barely 1/8th the gross of Paris combined. Even Allen flicks viewed as successes – like 2008’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona and 2005’s Match Point - took in much less than half of this one’s earnings.
Really, I think you’d have to go back to the 1980s to find any other Allen films that compare with this one’s relative success. In terms of actual dollars, Paris appears to be Allen’s highest-grossing film, though if you adjust for inflation, it clearly would lose to earlier efforts like Annie Hall and Hannah and Her Sisters.
While I think Allen has pumped out erratic output over his career – a tendency that’s been more obvious over the last 20 years – I’m happy that he’s encountered career-reviving success in his mid-70s. Now I have to deal with the more significant question: is Paris actually any good?
Gil Pender (Owen Wilson) makes a great living as a Hollywood screenwriter, but this doesn’t fulfill his artistic ambitions. He wishes that he and his fiancée Inez (Rachel McAdams) could move to Paris and reside there, but she refuses to leave the US. Still, Gil remains attached to the notion, and a trip they take to France along with her parents (Kurt Fuller and Mimi Kennedy) just feeds his fantasy.
Matters become even more enticing when Gil wanders the streets of Paris in a semi-inebriated state. An antique car appears and the inhabitants invite him to come along with them and drink champagne. Before too long, Gil winds up at a party where he meets a woman named Zelda (Allison Pill) – a woman with a husband named Scott (Tom Hiddleston).
At first, Gil thinks this is just a gag, but he soon realizes that the car has transported him back to the 1920s. Gil also meets Ernest Hemingway (Corey Stoll), Pablo Picasso (Marcial Di Fonzo Bo) and other artistic legends. Gil enjoys the greatest night of his life and tries to come back the next night with Inez.
This doesn’t work out with Inez in tow, and she heads home. Gil eventually realizes that he can’t go back in time until midnight, so when the clock strikes 12, he hops into the car and goes back to the 1920s. This sets him on a journey of love and discovery, as he works on a novel and contemplates his relationship with Inez.
Most Allen films feature a character with a clear resemblance to the writer/director. Woody himself used to play the “Woody role”, but I don’t think that’s been true since 2002’s Hollywood Ending, so he’s used a string of replacements.
Wilson gets that assignment here, though Gil seems less like “Movie Woody” than most of the others, and that’s a good thing. Most of the actors who take on the “Woody role” tend to play up the stammering and mannerisms. Wilson plays down those traits, which is something of a surprise since he tends toward similar mannerisms in many of his other performances.
But it’s a good decision, as the lack of tics and stammering ensure that Gil becomes one of the more likable Woody doppelgangers we’ve seen. Wilson comes across as less pretentious and smug than his predecessors, and he helps ground the fantasy tale. Gil could’ve been as insufferable as most Woody clones, but he ends up as reasonably genuine and charming.
It’s too bad the movie doesn’t bother to flesh out the other roles very well. In particular, Inez suffers, as she’s little more than a cartoon shrew; other than her looks, we can’t ever figure out why Gil would be interested in her. Her parents are worse, and even the usually delightful Michael Sheen can’t bring any spark to the movie’s most pretentious part, Inez’s know-it-all friend Paul.
Probably the film’s biggest flaw comes from its narrative, or lack thereof. Much of the time Allen appears to think he simply needs to allow Gil to meet various artistic legends and we’ll be entertained. Unfortunately, the thrill of discovery wears off quickly, and the movie soon feels like a long parade of character cameos; we think less about the actual story and more about who the flick will trot out next.
Because of this, Paris really is more of a concept than a story. It essentially glides by on its premise and rarely bothers with much else. Yeah, Allen throws in a message by the end, but it seems gratuitous, as the movie cares most about its cameo-oriented fantasy.
Even with these flaws, Paris manages a breezy charm that makes it watchable. Maybe I just don’t expect much from Allen these days, but at least Paris was a step up over recent duds like Whatever Works and Vicky Cristina Barcelona. Though Paris is a far cry from classic Allen, it’s a moderately enjoyable romp.