Paris Match (Midnight in Paris)
Like all sentient beings from this planet and beyond, I prefer Woody Allen’s earlier, funny films. Actually, I tell a lie – my favourite Allens are found in the decade between Annie Hall and Hannah and her Sisters. Since then it’s been, to paint in very broad strokes, a long decline, with (increasingly fewer) excellent offerings (Crimes and Misdemeanours; Everyone Says I Love You), amusing miniatures and genre pieces (Curse of the Jade Scorpion; Bullets Over Broadway; Sweet and Lowdown), good ideas that only work to a certain extent (Hollywood Ending; Melinda and Melinda[i]) and some downright stinkers (September; Match Point; Vicky Cristina Barcelona[ii]).
Midnight in Paris is a hard film to fit into any of these loose categories. It has many of the expected Allen touches (star turns; a writer dissatisfied with both his commercial success and his relationship; loving shots of historic buildings and boulevards, presumably arranged in conjunction with the tourist board of the relevant European city). The conceit – Owen Wilson’s frustrated scribbler finds himself able to travel back to the Paris of Hemingway, the Fitzgeralds and the Lost Generation – is both lovely and recognisable as a variation on plot devices in other Allen films (most obviously The Purple Rose of Cairo). It’s also developed in a way that both brings out the theme and is easy to follow, proving that Allen is still capable of coming up with engrossing plots.
The passages between the present day and the gilded past are sweetly achieved – no effects or attempted explanations, just an old-time taxi cab crawling around a corner. The 1920s scenes are a little bit name-droppy, at times an elaborate game of émigré lit talent-spotting – Djuna Barnes pops up at one point – with artists ranging from Man Ray to Modigliani getting walk-on parts or mentions. I rather enjoyed this aspect of the film, but I can imagine if you’re in the wrong mood it would come across as smug, or even desperate to impress. Not a great deal happens in these scenes, but the atmosphere is every bit as bright and fragile as you’d expect. Watching them, I really wanted to be there, which is surely the highest praise you can give a film depicting high-class carousing.
The bigger problems are also familiar from Allen’s recent work. Some of the characters are too eager to state the point the film is obviously making; the treatment of Gil’s wife and her family is perfunctory to the point of being annoying; and, while very enjoyable and occasionally amusing, it is not particularly funny. One feels compelled to class it as a comedy, but perhaps an adjacent genre – light fantasy? – would more easily accommodate it. It hardly matters though; Midnight in Paris is, if not a triumph, then at least an accomplishment of charm over substance.