Friday, July 22, 2011

Cinematically Inclined: Midnight in Paris

Want a little intellect with your cinema? Woody Allen’s latest concoction, Midnight in Paris, is a joyful piece of tantalizingly literary cinematic candy.

Gil Pender (Owen Wilson) is a Hollywood screenwriter engaged to a Park Avenue princess (Rachel McAdams). They are on holiday in Paris with her moneyed Republican parents. Mother and daughter are the sort who enjoy art not for art’s sake, but for its acquisitional value. They run into a couple she knows, in particular a dilettante (Michael Sheen) who enjoys correcting local tour guides on the information they provide in their tours. Needless to say, this is the type who does not take kindly to being corrected, even in the face of irrefutable evidence.

One evening at midnight, Gil is wandering around and comes to a stop at a particular street corner. A car pulls up and invites him to attend a party. He accepts, unaware that the party acts as a time machine to the 1920s. How does he know about that the party takes place in that era? He meets Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald at that party, that’s how. Soon, every night, he is at that same street corner and whisked away to drink with Ernest Hemingway (Corey Stoll), take editorial meetings with Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates) and hobnob with the Surrealists. Tampering his enthusiasm somewhat is the angelic Adriana. She is a flapper girl who blithely declares that Paris in the 1920s just isn’t that great, not compared to the belle époque of the turn of the century. Pretty soon, the future in-laws suspect that Gil’s up to something and the fiancée is spending increasingly more with the dilettante …
At this stage in his career, Allen has moved beyond the confines of his nebbish New Yorker persona. Gone is the neurotic, therapy-heavy, self-deprecating humour that tied so much of his previous work to Manhattan. Given the continuing propensity of Hollywood to make craptcular, mass-marketed action films, Allen wisely makes all of his films in Europe, with European money. It’s a great decision that has rejuvenated his creative spurt. Since 2005, he has produced the Bergman-esque thriller Match Point, the sexy ménage-a-trois comedy Vicky Cristina Barcelona, and now Midnight in Paris. It’s appeared that The Old World has released new creative juices in our favourite neurotic Manhattanite.

This movie is dripping with literary references and is unapologetic about it. It takes a certain knowledge base to capture the nuances of all the jokes, which will put off a lot of casual viewers. However, knowing the details and in-jokes will reward those in the know. Liberal arts major will essentially geek out at the plethora of literary references. The Paris presented onscreen is the idealized one, free from conflict and traffic. The city of lights, as seen here, could very well be just down the street from the one in Amelie.

Too many films these days are made for mass appeal, made easily accessible so that it can play across international borders. You don’t need to speak English to understand a car chase. You won’t need a liberal arts education to enjoy Midnight in Paris, just an appreciation and a love for art and The Old World. Even film audiences are recognizing this and speaking with their wallets: Midnight in Paris recently became the highest-grossing Woody Allen film in the director’s 40-year career, even if what it has made so far was what that robot-transformation monstrosity grossed in its first 40 hours.

Midnight in Paris is a perfect cinematic dish: as light and airy as a croissant, but as deeply satisfying as a traditional ratatouille.