Midnight in Paris: A New Voice for Woody

05/18/2011 4:00 AM |

Midnight in Paris
Directed by Woody Allen

“Have you ever shot a charging lion?” asks Papa Hemingway. “Have you ever hunted?” “Only for bargains,” shrugs Owen Wilson’s modern-day, aspiring novelist Gil, while on a Cinderella-fantastic midnight journey to Paris in the 1920s, induced by itching to escape his harpy of a fiancée and her boorish friends and family while on a Parisian holiday. The Starry Night-inspired poster art prepares one for a middlebrow easy-intellectual cultural list of literary greatest hit references in this insertion of an Allen-esque tale into Hemingway’s Moveable Feast. But the casting is spot-on for these cameos, so the deadpan deliveries and the unlikely interactions of all of these legends (the self-created mythic versions of them, rather than the probably more mundane reality) provide longer laughs than a mere checklist of allusions would have.

As Allen lets his cultural references speak, literally, for themselves, these manic flights of fancy are like a film full of the Marshall McLuhan moment in Annie Hall. And yet, like that classic Allen moment, while tremendously funny on first viewing they become less so once expected. Despite this—and some creaky “contemporary” cultural references to valium and “measuring your life in coke spoons” that seem written by a Rip Van Winkle—still, this is Allen’s most entertaining film in at least twenty years: a nimbly executed, occasionally brilliant, satisfying comic excursion.

Owen Wilson seems born to be in a Woody Allen film. For years he has been a sexy, neurotic intellectual trapped in bloodless big-budget films. In this film, often disheveled and sporting a slight paunch, Wilson is schlubbier than in any film previously (whether playing a granola male model or an airbrushed beach-bum action star), which perversely increases his sexiness, which is all in his obviously creative mind. The great joy in watching Wilson is the way he owns every space that he enters, and also in the way he reacts sensitively to everyone and every line with coy naiveté. (When the flapper love interest played by Marion Cotillard confesses to hiring a cheap prostitute to teach her all her tricks, you know from Wilson’s reaction that he’s gonna keep thinking about that before he even says so.)

Allen’s trademarked anxious, rapid-fire delivery of one-liners quickly ends the dialogue and leaves room for the laugh , while Wilson’s slow, open delivery allows the same kind of lines to take on a hilarious mystery. “’Prufrock’ is like my mantra!” Wilson yells to an unseen TS Elliot, a line that would have seemed like satire if delivered by Allen (and would have most likely fallen flat from anyone else), but in Wilson’s oracular drawl takes on a mystical absurdity. More than an Allen substitute, as almost every male lead has tried to be since Woody stopped starring in his own films, Wilson is something even better: a male version of Allen’s greatest star and the only performer Allen would play second fiddle to, Diane Keaton. Both Keaton and Wilson can seem more intelligent than anyone else in the room—but in an eccentric, friendly and deeply hidden way.

There is one very funny scene when Wilson’s confession to being a Future Man cannot ruffle Adrien Brody as Dali (“That’s because you’re surrealists!”), which provoked deep laughter followed by a silent rage; why had it taken so long, for these wasted comic talents to be make an actually funny film? And why had it taken Woody Allen so long to write and direct a funny film for these comic talents? The answer is obvious from Allen’s filmography: his longest running joke is about his fear of death. This, not uncommonly for a man over forty, has manifested as horndog eyes: his female stars keep getting younger while he stays the same (a different type of time machine). This value on pure loveliness has encouraged Allen to keep the wooden and creamy Scarlett Johansson close at hand, to Woody Allen fans’ great loss. Let’s hope this new golden-locked movie star—who so well represents the dreamy, wistful and wry tone of Allen at his best, with no less lasciviousness—denotes a new phase.