"Nostalgia is denial - denial of the painful present... the name for this denial is golden age thinking - the erroneous notion that a different time period is better than the one one's living in - its a flaw in the romantic imagination of those people who find it difficult to cope with the present."~Paul (Michael Sheen) in Midnight In Paris
Legendary writer-director and Golden Age devotee Woody Allen's latest movie, the airy and light Midnight In Paris, has become a favorite of mine.
This review contains spoilers, so consider yourselves warned.
What it's About: With Midnight In Paris, Woody Allen continues his exploration of nostalgia, romance, and of course, chronic dissatisfaction. The film tells of hack Hollywood screenwriter Gil Pender (Owen Wilson) who travels to Paris with his fiancé, Inez (Rachel McAdams), and her conservative-to-a-fault parents, who are in Paris on business. An unwelcome addition to their Paris trip is the coincidental appearance of Inez' college crush, the know-it-all Paul (Michael Sheen) who takes advantage of every opportunity to rub his encyclopedic knowledge of the arts in Gil's face.
Gil realizes that he'd like to chuck his unsatisfying screenwriting career and move permanently to Paris in order to work on his novel about a man who runs a nostalgia shop. Gil is convinced that Paris in the 1920s with the Lost Generation of writers and artists was the greatest time to be alive. in Midnight In Paris, Gil gets to see that era firsthand and meets the likes of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dali, and most memorably: Ernest Hemingway (Corey Stoll; in a scene-stealing but not movie-stealing, performance).
It was wonderful that my cinematic hero has paid tribute to my literary hero. I was unaware that Allen even liked Hemingway! Whatever the case, Woody has captured enough of their essence to (hopefully) inspire newbies as well as those who've loved this stuff for years.
It's also great to know that the film has gotten some young people interested in the 1920s. I've long since wanted a movie with this kind of content to capture the imagination of those who may not have known anything about that time but leaves the viewer wishing to learn all about it.
As someone who's worshipped Hemingway for the past seventeen years, I have to say that I was thrilled at how Woody made those knowing references (despite some minor anachronisms; but really, no big deal) and how he paid attention to the little details, like Gertrude Stein's sitting room--it looked just like its photographs--and how Kathy Bates even sat like Stein. Fitzgerald was dapper and charming, Adrien Brody's Salvador Dali was another comedic turn. I was so happy while watching Midnight In Paris. I'm pleased that Woody's getting praise--and good box office receipts--for his work once again.
While I am a Hemingway buff, there was a scene in a car where Hem was discussing passion and women that I didn't recognize as coming from a specific book of his. It seemed more like an approximation of Hemingway rather than something from his actual work. Hats off to Woody the screenwriter for "channeling" Hemingway with the following hilariously dead-on send up of "Papa."
"I believe that love that is true and real creates a respite from death. All cowardice comes from not loving, or not loving well, which is the same thing. And when the man who is brave and true looks death squarely in the face like some rhino hunters I know, or Belmonte, who's truly brave. It is because they love with sufficient passion to push death out of their minds, until the return that it does to all men. And then you must make really good love again. Think about it."
~Ernest Hemingway (Corey Stoll) in Midnight In Paris
A Few Hemingway Quibbles: In the movie, Hemingway asks Owen Wilson if he's ever shot a lion. There's also further mention by Gertude Stein (Kathy Bates) that Hemingway and Adriana (not the Adriana that Hem went koo-koo for in 1948) went on safari, when in fact Hemingway's first safari was in 1933-34 (can't remember if it overlapped; I think it did), which inspired The Snows of Kilimanjaro, so it's unlikely that Hemingway had shot a lion during the 1920s. Once again, minor quibbles.
Owen Wilson's performance was quite good. Before this, I always viewed him as Ben Stiller's sidekick who never appeared in any good movies. I didn't think one way or the other about his actual ability since those movies were so atrocious. I'm glad that he's put in a fine Woodylike performance and I hope he and Allen work together again. I think Owen struck a perfect balance with his performance. He wasn't unlike the typical Woody character, but he was still different enough to avoid a dead-on (and distracting) caricature like Kenneth Branagh and Edward Norton have done in previous Allen films.
There has been criticism over Woody's dipping into the same well in recent movies and borrowing from himself, but Allen has always expressed chronic dissatisfaction with his own films and as a result has revisited the same themes multiple times. Many great artists re-interpret their own work--yes, I consider Woody Allen a great artist--Walt Whitman re-edited Leaves of Grass during the course of his lifetime, Duke Ellington and Charles Mingus constantly re-arranged their compositions during their careers in jazz, with Ellington doing so over a fifty-year period. John Ford and Howard Hawks continued to work in the Western genre and focused on the same themes. In Hawks' case, even remade one of his own films (Rio Bravo later remade as El Dorado; both of which are excellent). Martin Scorsese has revisited the gangster genre, and Barry Levinson has most every one of his movies set in Baltimore. There's absolutely nothing wrong with a filmmaker returning to certain themes and storylines during the course of their work; in fact, I'd be disappointed if an artist of Woody Allen's stature didn't return to the themes found in most of his films.
The bottom line is that I loved Midnight In Paris, though I agree that while it's by no means a high concept film, part of its enjoyment--at least for me--came from the amusing characterizations of the artists. It probably helps to have some knowledge of their work and lives beforehand, but I don't see any evidence that Allen was attempting to make some big intellectual point or trying to fool anyone with the movie. While Woody has always been smitten with the 1920s-1940s, his inner New Yorker can't help but cast a cynical eye over all he surveys. The fact that the know-it-all Paul is correct in his analysis of Gil's romanticism of the past shows that Woody himself is just as wary of the existence of any "Golden Age."
The film's dual messages--live and love your life today and understand that there is no one "Golden Age"--is about as deep as it gets here. I enjoyed Midnight In Paris for being an affectionate tip of the hat to some of the writers and artists Allen--and perhaps his audience--admires. It's a film that many Golden Age film fans will enjoy.