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Midnight in Paris

Owen Wilson headlines Woody Allen’s most engaging film in years

By tt stern-enzi · June 8th, 2011 · Movies
Back in 2002, during the junket for I Spy, Owen Wilson appeared distracted. As he fielded questions, he took long pauses and the twinkle in his eyes hinted at unspoken responses, tales he could have told but knew better than to share with us because it was likely that we, jaded critics and writers that we were, would never believe them. Wilson was the good-time Golden Boy, the slacker-surfer prince. But there were rumbling clouds of discontent darkening the horizon of the kingdom.

Somehow, Wilson weathered the storms, smiling his way through a series of mainstream fare (Wedding Crashers, Cars and Marley & Me, to name a few) that seemed intent on putting our minds (and quite possibly his own) at ease. His presence guaranteed a good time, a bit of wit and his laid-back roguish charm.

Now, almost a decade later, that halting stammer is back. His eyes glint and gleam again, and there is concern in his demeanor. But all is most definitely well because Wilson has a guardian angel and mentor who knows a thing or two about that same anxious delivery and how to make it a winning trait. Woody Allen must have seen or heard something in Wilson’s performances in his collaborations with Wes Anderson (Bottle Rocket, The Royal Tenenbaums, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, The Darjeeling Limited or Fantastic Mr. Fox) that reminded him of himself (granted, a looser, more crookedly handsome West Coast version of himself) and snatched Wilson away from the Hollywood spotlight for a chance to wander the streets and alleys of the City of Lights.

Midnight in Paris is a love letter to the city at night and the nostalgia for bygone days, but it realizes, even as it celebrates these elements, especially the past, that there is a trap in falling for the romance and old-fashioned romantic notions.

Nostalgia, we are told, is denial of the present, the harsh realities, the swift movement forward that actually obliterates the now and seeks to erase everything that has come before.

And yet that is exactly what Wilson, as the frustrated screenwriter and would-be novelist protagonist Gil, has eyes for — the stories and experiences of the past. He escapes his contemporary life with his fiancée (Rachel McAdams), her pedantic friend (Michael Sheen) and her staunchly traditional parents (Kurt Fuller and Mimi Kennedy) for nights with Ernest Hemingway (Corey Stoll, who perfectly channels the literary voice of the great writer), Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates) and the lovely muse of muses Adriana (Marion Cotillard, the rare contemporary actress who seemingly fits into any and all periods). Wilson lets us see this world, these possibilities in the bemused expressions of his character; he shares these experiences with us because he and Allen want this love of the past to live. They want to usher in a new age borne from the past.

To know and love the present and the future, we need to appreciate what has come before, and Allen, through shrewd casting and a narrative devoted to humorous detail, catches F. Scott Fitzgerald (Tom Hiddleston) and Zelda (Alison Pill) drinking as Cole Porter (Yves Heck) tickles the ivories and sings songs of love, while Salvador Dali (Adrien Brody) dreams of rhinos. There’s not a single wrong note played. Everyone gets caught up in the same sense of denial the denial of their current selves, their lives beyond these roles and they make us believe.

Outside of Wilson and Cotillard, Sheen and Brody create a sense of longing; we want to spend more time with these two men. Sheen’s blowhard is a detestable intellectual snob who is obviously not half as smart as he imagines himself to be, and every moment in his presence offers an opportunity to puncture his inflated ego. He makes you want to learn more just to knock him down a peg or two. And Brody’s Dali — well, there’s not likely to be another live-in take on a historical figure this year to match the sheer brilliant lunacy on display here. Allen needs to get to work on a Dali spinoff with Brody — what he does in this brief cameo screams for more, more, more.

It’s plain every time we focus on the eyes of these characters because the performers all have that same look that Wilson had back in the day, the half-crazy, half-anxious twinkle that worries a bit about whether or not we’re ready for the stories just too bewildering to believe, which could freeze those moments in sepia-toned amber and lock them away in camp.

Midnight in Paris doesn’t get stuck though. It, thanks to Wilson, Allen and this community of artists, shines a bright light towards the golden ages to come. Grade: A

Opens June 10. Check out theaters and show times, see the trailer and get theater details here.



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