That may seem like a blasphemous statement for an aspiring film geek like myself, as Woody Allen is often thought of as one of the best filmmakers of the last half-century, but I don’t mind making such a bold judgment because it is my own personal taste. I don’t deny that he has skill. He takes some beautiful shots of the cities in which he films and, to an extent, I can see the appeal. It is especially odd that I don’t like Woody Allen because understated, dialogue-heavy, philosophical, and character driven films are usually the type that I just eat up. Add romantic relationships to the mix and I’m usually in love (i.e. “Before Sunset” and “Before Sunrise”). However, there is one aspect of Woody Allen’s films that I can never get past and it tends to ruin them entirely…
I hate his characters.
Most, if not all of them, are so irredeemably neurotic, self-aggrandizing, and annoying that I never care about their personal lives or motivations. I want them all to get slapped in the face and realize that the entire world is not about them. Allen himself probably needs a similar slap in the face. I will not pretend to be an expert on all of his films, as I’ve seen about a half-dozen of them and he is one of the most prolific filmmakers currently in existence, but of those that I’ve seen, each main character is either Allen himself or another actor playing Allen. They are all annoying, pedantic, self-involved, and not relatable.
Midnight in Paris is classic Woody Allen in many ways, but its different in one key fact: the protagonist of the film is both likable and relatable. To me, that makes all the difference. Without an obnoxious main character turning me off, I’m able to see a beautiful and brilliant film about love and nostalgia. Owen Wilson, with his quirky mannerisms and speech patterns, seems like an obvious substitute for Allen himself, but, whether its purposeful in the script or not, the character’s neuroses are greatly toned down from Allen’s other protagonists. Granted, there is one supposedly humorous scene in “Midnight” that is indistinguishable from typical, obnoxious Woody Allen (for those who’ve seen it, the scene involves looking for earrings) and it is a bit painful to watch, but only one scene like this is a huge step up from other Allen films.
The film is about love and nostalgia, which is really just the love of or yearning for some other time period. It is part fantasy time-travel story, in which the protagonist (Gil) gets to experience the time period he idealizes, the 1920s (specifically 1920s Paris), and part romantic comedy/tragedy, in which he begins to realize how wrong for one another he and his fiancé are. The theme of nostalgia is really what made me love this film. Nostalgia is a universal human emotion, thus it is extremely relatable, especially in hard times. When life gets too difficult or moves too fast, we all think back to times when we believe life was simpler, whether it be in our own lives (college, high school, etc.) or time periods we never even experienced (life before nuclear bombs, terrorists, or the internet). The film’s core message is that, though nostalgia is often harmless fun, idealizing the past too much can be a waste of time and is not a solution to current problems. If you don’t like the situation you’re in, you need to actively change it, instead of just thinking about when life wasn’t as challenging and wishing things were different. Only when Gil begins to realize this does he actually understand that he doesn’t like his situation he’s in and can do something to change it.
As expected, the acting is well done. Owen Wilson, as noted previously, is pitch perfect as the toned-down Woody Allen character of Gil, who is lost in his own life and trying to find a path with which he’ll be satisfied. Rachel McAdams is delightfully obnoxious as Gil’s spoiled, pseudo-intellectual fiancé, which surprised me since I’ve never really liked her in a movie that wasn’t “Mean Girls” (where she is also obnoxious… I guess that’s her specialty, even though filmmakers keep trying to make her the nice girl). Michael Sheen is natural as the overly pedantic friend of Gil’s fiancé, Paul, who is really the antagonist of the film, if it can be said to have one, since he is the polar opposite of Gil. Paul greatly reminds me of Lester from “Crimes and Misdemeanors” (played by Alan Alda), who is just as pedantic and snobby. Its interesting that Allen seems to vilify these traits repeatedly in his films, as he often embodies them himself. Kathy Bates basically plays Kathy Bates as Gertrude Stein, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The only slightly weak link is Corey Stoll, with whom I’m not particularly familiar, who is a bit flat and at the same time somehow over-the-top as Ernest Hemingway.
Overall, “Midnight in Paris” is a surprisingly well-done Woody Allen film. I went in expecting to be annoyed and angry at the characters, but came out thoroughly pleased and full of thoughts about the nature of nostalgia, life, and love. In fact, it is one of the best films I've seen all year so far. I highly recommend it.
What did you think? Leave a comment and let me know what you thought of Midnight in Paris.