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Midnight in Paris

Owen Wilson and Rachel McAdams in "Midnight in Paris"

Found Generation

Midnight in Paris

Another year, another Woody Allen movie. Isn’t it nice to know that there are some things you can always count on?

That didn’t always seem like a blessing. The discipline of making a film a year means that they’re unlikely all to be gems, but in the early part of the last decade it looked like he was riding on fumes. After The Curse of the Jade Scorpion, Hollywood Ending, Anything Else, and Melinda and Melinda it was hard to hold out much hope for his future.

But in 2005 Allen amazed everyone by starting to make films outside of his beloved Manhattan, starting in London with Match Point, a noirish drama so good that it put his entire career in to a whole new perspective.

Since then he has continued to work mostly overseas, because that’s where he can get funding: Great Britain, Spain, France, and Italy. (His standard joke in interviews: “I always wanted to be a foreign filmmaker, and now I am one!”) And while his output continues to be variable, the average is a lot higher than it was a decade ago.

In the future, Midnight in Paris will probably get a reputation as the movie fans use to convert friends who don’t like Woody Allen. It’s a lightweight comedy, bigger on enchantment than laughs, but droll and completely likeable.

Owen Wilson stars as Gil, a successful screenwriter, a self-described “Hollywood hack,” who wants to be a novelist. He’s vacationing in Paris, a city that thrills him for its memories of the “Lost Generation” artists of the 1920s.

It’s an obsession not shared by his fiancée Inez (Rachel McAdams), whose conservative parents (Kurt Fuller and Mimi Kennedy) have brought them there as part of a business trip. Gil becomes even more of the odd man out when their party is joined by Inez’s old flame Paul, an insufferably pretentious academic. We hate Paul immediately because of his beard, which disguises the fact that he is played by Michael Sheen, usually seen on these shores impersonating Tony Blair or David Frost.

Taking an evening away from them for a stroll through Paris, Gil gets lost. At midnight, he accepts an offer of a ride from the champagne-swilling occupants of a vintage Peugeot limousine. They take him to a party where Jean Cocteau is the guest of honor, Ernest Hemingway and the Fitzgeralds (Scott and Zelda, of course) are among the guests, and Cole Porter is supplying the music.

Somehow, Gil has been transported back to the era he worships. The evening ends and he finds himself back with his philistine companions. But that night he finds his way back into the past. He gets advice on his novel from Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates), has a drink with Salvador Dalí (Adrien Brody), and falls in love with Picasso’s mistress (Marion Cotillard).

Midnight in Paris is a fanciful, less biting example of the premise Allen has used in short stories like “The Kugelmass Episode,” where a middle-aged academic goes back in time to have an affair with Emma Bovary. The people Gil meets live up to his fantasies because that’s what they are: They don’t disappoint him with their faults and flaws, except as those flaws are part of his perception of them. (The exception is Luis Bunuel, still too green to recognize the value of the plot line of one of his best films when Gil suggests it to him.) Allen is both chiding nostalgia and admitting its attraction. He could hardly deny it, given the open affection for the music and movies of the 1930s that appears in so much of his work.

The film has a pleasant, consistently light touch, perfect summertime arthouse fare. In Wilson he has finally found a surrogate who doesn’t feel the need to mimic the writer-director’s distinctive vocal cadences (though he does dress in Allen’s standard plaid-and-khaki uniform).

Unusual for one of his films, which almost invariably open with white credits on a black background, Midnight in Paris opens with a montage of Paris sights (beautifully shot by Darius Khondji) that makes you want to go to Expedia and price overseas flights. It recalls the beginning of Manhattan, and makes one thing clear: Wherever the rest of his filmmaking career takes him in the world, he’s a lover of great cities and likely to remain so.

Watch the trailer for Midnight in Paris

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