Dear Midnight in Paris,
As a movie about nostalgia, you evoke a fair bit of nostalgia yourself. No, I’m not talking about your decadent and entertaining vision of American expatriates in 1920s Paris. I refer instead to the nostalgia, the deep interminable longing, I felt for your first thirty minutes during your final sixty. You began on such a light, intelligent yet playful note that I found myself instantly charmed, eager to be swept along with you during your sojourns to the past. Little did I know that the remainder of your time would be spent banging that same note over and over again until all joy and wit had been hammered away by its incessant banging.
How did you manage to do this? Believe me, it was no easy task, but luckily your creator, Woody Allen, made sure you had the proper guidance to slowly erode all your built-up good will.
At the outset we are introduced to a standard romantic comedy trope; the restless artist who is harried by his upper class fiance. He is, of course, smarter than everyone in their circle of friends, though less self consciously intellectual than the one person who possesses an excess of knowledge, but no intelligence. This protagonist, Gil, suffers the indignities of thoughtless in-laws and his obliviously cruel fiance with self-effacing humor and an unerring passion for Paris, especially as he believes it had been in the 1920s. You see, Gil wants to be a novelist, and he draws inspiration from his idealization of the past. So imagine his wonder and awe when an old car filled with boistrous revelers appears one night to wisk him away to a soiree populated by none other than Cole Porter, Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald, among many other Jazz Age heros.
These opening scenes are executed with such farcical whimsy that it was hard for me not to get caught up in your world and your story. Owen Wilson plays Gil with such gee-shucks boyish charm that he turns what would have been yet another whiny, antisocial Woody Allen protagonist into someone you really want to root for. The modern-era characters who surround him help to make him a sypathetic figure, and create a solid base of empathy that Allen-insertion characters usually lack. Paul, his grating intellectual nemesis, is a hilarious foil who is apparently an expert in everything. Inez, Gil’s wife, is a snarky, unpleasant waif who offers little support or affection. But these characters are played with such lightness that their flaws come off as funny, and help to heighten the relief when that old Peugeot rolls up and brings Gil into the past.
In the past he meets a cast of lively portraits of his heros, all of them given a kind of borderline satirical life by a group of talented actors. Hemingway by far steals the show as a kind of parody of himself, but he’s played with so much verve and gusto that its easy to overlook the sheer on-ness of his protrayal.
Sadly this whimsy cannot be sustained. Woody Allen, of late, has turned from storyteller to essayist, and you, sadly, are nothing more than a short essay stretched to fill the runtime of a feature film. As a short film, or better yet a short story, you would have been an interesting and entertaining confection. As a full length film your sweetness soon turns to intollerable excess. The more time we spend with Gil’s cavalcade of modern antagonists the more we begin to wonder why he puts up with any of them at all. In a short dose we can find amusement in their self narcissism and bile, but after a while we begin to wonder if there is ever a respite from their vitriol. Why does Gil put up with them? Is he really that much of a lout? Then why should I care about him? Outside of a predictable romance, the 1920s offers little in terms of story or narrative either. It is merely a means by which to prove your inherent treatise.
The simplicity and obviousness of this treatise does you no favors either: nostalgia is a biasing agent, and every idealized time period was someone else’s unfulfilling present. Allen seems to think that this is a revelation and not blatantly self-evident, even though he has a character openly state this very fact at the beginning of the film. Though, since this character is Paul, I suppose we aren’t meant to believe him. But then where does that leave us? We spent the movie believing in Gil’s romanticism, only to have it proven wrong and have Paul’s intellectual drivel proven right. What does this mean, then? We’ll never know, because you are only interested in exploring your one-note idea, not its deeper implications to life on a grander scale.
The worst thing, though, is that the main thrust of the nostalgia-centric narrative is completely defeated by your own storytelling. We are told that every supposed grand era – 1920s Paris, the Belle Epoch, the Renaissance – is just someone’s dull present, yet in the movie itself these are supmtuous and intellectually rich times. Sure, people in these times all look back fondly to previous times, but they still have great ideas and strive for art and knowledge. However, our own present is portrayed as nothing but bickering ludites trying to find the best $2,000 chair. This sets up the idea that while each era might get looked back on as great, they are really a series of diminishing returns, with ours being the nadir. As a depressing, nihilistic and near apocolyptic vision of intellectual stagnation this would be an interesting idea to mine. As the capstone to a formerly whimsical adventure, its downright jarring.
Don’t be too hard on yourself, though. For a while we had fun, and had you been more aware of your limits as a narrative our time together might have been a briefer albeit more enjoyable affair. In the end I don’t regret seeing you, but that is damning with faint praise. As it stands, you tried to prop up too much plot on one frail, inconsequential idea, and as a result we as an audience get crushed under your weight.
Not everything is meant to last,
Brian J. Roan