Monday, June 13, 2011

Film Review: "Midnight in Paris" (***1/2)

Please take a look at the film ratings I've given out recently, and you'll see they've been scaled back, because exceptional work deserves to be seen as just that. I thought I might be kind enough to give Super 8 a complete three stars, but still chipped off 1/2. I thought 1/2 more might be deserving of Kung Fu Panda 2, but it was ultimately not too special. Midnight in Paris was just the right film to knock me back into reality, as it was the first film this year that truly defied my expectations going in. We set such specific standards going into films, and without seeing them it is entirely too easy to make calls on certain features.

It starts out with a series of images documenting modern day Paris from morning to nighttime, and the immediate impact is as something hollow. People walking idly by, shelling out cash in stores, rushing through rain under cover of umbrella, and ultimately not taking advantage of the beauty of the place around them. Wasted potential is a good way of putting it. Then the credits roll, and we hear Gil Pender, played earnestly by Owen Wilson, raving about the beauty of Paris, and how much he wishes he could live there. His fiance Inez, played by Rachel McAdams, is not as convinced.

Gil is a former Hollywood screenwriter trying to punch out his first novel, and he has a decidedly more idealist view of the world than Inez and her parents. Inez comes from the viewpoint of survival rather than passion, much like most of us. She's fascinated with Paul Bates, portrayed by Michael Sheen, a cynical and pedantic pseudo-intellectual who tries his utmost to best anyone else, even to the point of factual disconnect. After a day of sightseeing and wine tasting, Gil walks home drunk on his own and ends up being picked up by an old style car that takes him to the Paris of his dreams.

The Paris that Woody Allen delights in most is actually Paris in the 1920s, the golden age as Gil sees it. He takes these surreal nightly adventures where he experiences the legendary writers and artists of the time, from F. Scott Fitzgerald to Ernest Hemmingway to Gertrude Stein. It's at once both mesmerizing and laid back in feeling, and it's clear why Gil goes back again and again. Allen makes it all more fantastic by not denouncing it as a flight of drunken fancy or psychological detriment, but being a genuine magical journey.

I'm not surprised if Woody Allen wanted to make a period piece about Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Picasso, and found this to be the easiest way to get it done. Many of the characters have completely rounded arcs emotionally, transcending being simple caricatures. A few aren't entirely rounded out, with Man Ray and Luis Bunuel being just cameos, yet delightful ones. Adrien Brody has a short and zany appearance as Salvador Dali, and he offers one of the most delightful comedic exchanges of the film.

There's so much boundless creativity that Woody Allen displays with these depictions of such well known literary and artistic icons. Corey Stoll puts some boisterous charm and hubris to work that you'd always expect to find in a writer like Ernest Hemingway, and the moment he comes on screen, you get the idea of what writers were like back then. They were partying rock stars of an elegant but not stuffy nature, and Hemingway is the best depiction of such. Tom Hiddleston and Alison Pill play F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, respectively, and while Hiddleston is humble and eager in the role, Pill is just bursting with all kinds of emotion and charisma. She's a perfect performance, but a small one.

Kathy Bates plays Gertrude Stein, who acts nicely as the voice of confidence that builds Gil into the writer he wants to be. Bates always brings that sort of motherly attention and criticism that works wonderfully for this role. The standout of the group, however, is Marion Cotillard as Adriana, a beautiful French girl whose ideas of love, passion, and nostalgia align up perfectly with Gil, and the two end up forming a relationship of sorts. It never feels impossible, as the unsureness and naivety that Gil is bashful of are the reasons Adriana finds him so fascinating. Cotillard has a constant magnetism about her, further stunning us with her beauty in every role that she takes.

Rachel McAdams plays Inez, continuing to inspire hatred in her mostly antagonistic roles, but Allen imparts with her and her family the real world sensibilities that clash with Woody Allen's ideals of love and passion. It's a rather specific sort of betrayal that no one other than Woody Allen could nail. Lea Seydoux plays a modern day antiquities dealer who Gil encounters, and she has such a bright enjoyment of the now that works subtly to keep the film from reeling off course. The problems with the film are when it starts saying things a tad too overtly.

The film is a wonderful depiction of nostalgia and how it can be sweet, but can also be destructive in a way. One the long car ride home after leaving the theater, I couldn't help but admire the beautiful scenery, despite the seemingly disgusting weather outside. It's a film that alters a world view ever so slightly. The cinematography dances in rich hues deeper yellows as we go into the past, as the nightlife of Paris is by far the most beautiful. Owen Wilson, unsuspectingly so, is the true star of this film. He is a surprisingly perfect stand in for Woody Allen's usual title role, and rather than smooth over it as nothing, his face is taken advantage of for all the broken accuracy that it has. Midnight in Paris absolutely refuses to be cynical, but inspiring by not running away from it, but towards it guns-a-blazing. Not quite as good as Vicky Christina Barcelona, but I'm far from complaining.

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