Midnight in Paris: Don't Look Back 

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Midnight in Paris
Directed by Woody Allen

Mating Manhattan and The Purple Rose of Cairo, Woody Allen's latest film, a fantasy of romantic regret and artistic validation, would probably be depressing if it was awful. Dreamer Owen Wilson, musing more than neurotic, plays a successful screenwriter who'd rather perfect his novel; Rachel McAdams is his shrill, comfortably shallow, gorgeous fiancée; Paris at midnight (shot by Darius Khondji) is all his dreams fulfilled. The couple are there on her daddy's dime, though the restless writer type prefers mind-clearing wanders to orderly sight-seeing, especially with tiresome friends (Michael Sheen). What lifts a routine romcom setup out of its off-the-shelf ordinariness is what buoys Wilson's character—a blissfully unexplained portal to the past that allows him to hang out in the 1920s with the city's storied luminaries of art and literature: exquisitely coiffed F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, a books-on-tape-booming Ernest Hemingway (grandfather to Allen's Manhattan co-star), Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates), Luis Bu ñuel, Salvador Dalí (a deflatingly joky Adrien Brody), and even T.S. "Tom" Eliot (to whom Wilson gushes: "'Prufrock' is like my mantra!").

It's a well-trodden conceit, at once childlike and fundamental to the Western literary tradition, and also one reminiscent of Allen's best-selling prose collections; in a way, as both easy gag and surprisingly enduring revelation, it encapsulates much of Allen's micro-macro humor. As Wilson travels back in time repeatedly, it's an occasion for easy comedy and wish fulfillment that can get under the skin of any bookworm: the appeal of curiosity fulfilled, idols alive again, searching internal monologues turned into casually illuminating dialogues. Allen drives too hard the grass-is-greener sentiment that haunts every cultural age in the shadow of a gilt past, a longing that spans elegy, eros, nostalgia, or whatever the era's chosen mode is; but the notion remains as potent as ever (though perhaps not as much as it used to be...). More intriguing is the spin on consciousness, fiction, and autobiography that is brought by the blurring between Wilson's dreamlife (which naturally extends to infatuation with Picasso "art groupie" Marion Cotillard) and his waking existence (in which McAdams's one-note character seems tethered to Wilson's only by remembered attraction). Allen has said that he and other directors try to make the films they remember liking in childhood (perhaps now mingling his own films in that reservoir of memories), and as with the easy magic of ages past, Wilson's performance and Allen's fanciful premise allow one to ignore the caricatures and marooned side scenes: in life, cinema, and Allen's movies, we're always still waiting for the good bits.

Opens May 20

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