After Midnight

A few weeks ago, I wrote about Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris as one of my “Most Disappointing Movies of 2011.” Then, as the year came to an end, I kept seeing it pop up on best-of-the-year lists, always praised as “witty” and “magical.” And now it’s right on course to Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Director, and Original Screenplay, with good odds of winning the latter. So, from the depths of my confusion and curiosity, I have to ask again: what is so great (or even good) about this movie?

Hell, I’ve been so earnestly curious that I rewatched it. Maybe I’d somehow missed the magic that first time around! But no, it actually got worse. I still love the wall-to-wall jazz soundtrack and the amber-tinted Parisian scenery; it’s certainly a pleasant movie to look at. (Although a tourist brochure does not a great movie make.) And it has a handful of supporting performances that make me smile: Marion Cotillard as “art groupie” Adriana, Adrien Brody’s rhinoceros-obsessed Dalí, and Corey Stoll as a hilarious, swaggering Hemingway.

But the whole movie’s premised on one long joke. It’s just Owen Wilson’s Gil being introduced to one Lost Generation luminary after another, then stammering in disbelief, “Hemingway? The Ernest Hemingway? Tom Eliot? You mean T.S. Eliot? Picasso? As in Pablo Picasso?” At first, it’s endearing; an hour later, it’s tiresome. The 1920s scenes are affable and sometimes funny, but they never go beyond facile wish fulfillment. They lie somewhere between a costume party and a wax museum, depicting their era as a time when everyone was a genius, went to parties, and fell in love with strangers from the future.

I keep reading claims that Midnight in Paris ends up criticizing nostalgia. If so, it’s the softest critique imaginable. Gil’s climactic revelation is, more or less, “The grass is always greener on the other side.” Profound, right? And then he goes back to the “unsatisfying” present so he can live in Paris with a beautiful antiques dealer. But setting aside the wish-fulfillment-upon-wish-fulfillment of the ending, let’s talk about that “critique.” Wouldn’t it have been a smidge more effective if the 1920s had been represented as, say, somehow imperfect? Like, oh, if we’d seen any trace of the alcoholism and depression that pervaded these authors’ lives, beyond a throwaway gag about Zelda Fitzgerald’s attempted suicide?

Obviously, Woody has no desire to seriously criticize nostalgia. And obviously, Gil has no regrets about having his ass kissed by half a dozen cornerstones of the modernist canon. It’s just a rushed “moral”—a lazy postscript to a movie spent wallowing in the idealized past. But Jesus, I wish Gil had stayed there so he wouldn’t keep returning to the poorly written present. He’s visiting Paris with his fiancée Inez, a woman who hates everything he loves and attacks every sentence he says. Her parents are in Paris, too, and they’re wealthy but spiritually dead Republicans. Every line they utter is basically a new way of saying, “We’re wealthy but spiritually dead Republicans.”

Granted, I’m in the same political demographic as Woody Allen. But it isn’t clever or satisfying to represent the people you hate as loathsome, one-dimensional dimwits; it’s just cheap. The closest Midnight in Paris comes to satirizing bourgeois shallowness is when a minor character grapples with the pronunciation of “Versailles.” It’s quick and well-observed. But by and large, Inez’s social circle feels like a gaggle of walking clichés, with Inez herself as the fucking Wicked Witch of the West: she turns down sex with Gil, cheats on him, and when she suspects a pair of earrings have been stolen, tries to get a maid fired. She might as well be whispering “You’re supposed to hate me!” between lines.

Compounding Inez’s behavior is Gil’s bizarre habit of praising her to Hemingway and Adriana. I can understand blindly loving someone, but she snarls insults at him every time she’s onscreen. It’s a terrible role, indicative of the film’s brand of misogyny: either women cater to Gil, or they’re raw evil. And, frankly, it’s a waste of Rachel McAdams. (Though she does deliver one line in full-on Regina George mode: “I hardly think he’d be lecturing at the Sorbonne if he’s a pseudointellectual!”) That just about sums up my major problems with Midnight in Paris, but for what it’s worth, here are a few scattered bits that annoyed me:

  • That goddamn Exterminating Angel joke. Having Gil inspire Buñuel to make one of his masterpieces is funny in theory, like the Woody Allen equivalent of Marty McFly writing “Johnny B. Goode.” But as executed, it just makes Buñuel look like a clueless dumbass who’s totally baffled by his own future idea. (And isn’t Gil kind a tool for pitching Buñuel’s own movie to him?)
  • The “lol Djuna Barnes was a lesbian” quasi-joke: “No wonder she wanted to lead!” Get it? ‘Cause lesbians are mannish!
  • The whininess and presumption of the whole story. Wow, it sure must be nice to have enough disposable income to relocate to Paris on a whim, then pontificate to everyone about how beautiful it looks in the rain!

Where is the magic? Is Midnight in Paris just “magical” by virtue of being set in Paris? What does it have to say about art, beyond the names of the artists? And what’s so brilliant about this often hacky, intermittently funny screenplay? I honestly want to know.

6 Comments

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6 responses to “After Midnight

  1. Wow. Very insightful and well written. Certainly not the take I was expecting when I clicked the twitter link. LOL

    But well said. Well argued. I would counter that the movie was light in tone, gorgeous in setting, and sweet natured over all. So critics and viewers were pleased. Also, the time period is one that a lot of people would wish to visit. So the characters appealed…

    “The Pledge”. The magician shows you something ordinary

    Perhaps this is WHY the characters in Gil’s life pre “Transport” are so cookie cutter. They’re meant to be. They serve contrast. As opposed to seeing them as poorly written, perhaps the extra degree of “stereotypical” is needed to add color to the denziens of the 1920s by way of comparison.

    Just my take

    “The Turn”. The magician takes the ordinary something and makes it do something extraordinary.

    Obviously this is the time travel conceit.

    Much like a magic trick, the audience for Midnight doesn’t WANT to see the hole in the bottom of the hat. We WANT to be there with those characters too. We’d love to talk to those people, to be amongst those legendary artists… I’m sure that most people who are calling it so wonderful feel like I do, and they enjoyed that portion of the movie to the extent they weren’t LOOKING to nitpick some of the points you pick out.

    We want to be fooled.

    “The Prestige” making something disappear isn’t enough; you have to bring it back. That’s why every magic trick has a third act, the hardest part.

    Perhaps you’re right, perhaps the end was “tacked on”. But the magic trick did NEED a third act, it did need to make the assistant reappear, so to speak. Having Gil visit the past, then come back to the modern day creates a nice little harmless whimsical diversion in his life. Having him stay there makes it a time travel movie. LOL

    Of course, there is no defense for the movie against your joke “THE Ernest Hemingway”? LOL. You nailed it there…

    • Well, I wasn’t really looking to nitpick when I started watching it. Like Woody Allen and many of the film’s fans, I’d love to visit the 1920s, then hobnob with Hemingway and Cole Porter, and I was all set to enjoy the movie. But the only way for me to not see its faults would be to actively turn a blind eye to them, and I don’t see why I should have to do that with a good/great movie.

      As for the present-day characters being extra-stereotypical in order to make the 1920s look better, I mean, yeah. That’s pretty transparently part of the screenplay’s aim. But if you need half your movie to be insufferable in order to make the other half look better, that’s still poor writing.

  2. 7ese

    I agree with your sentiments on Midnight in Paris. Also, this is another very well-written piece.

  3. You make some very good points, Andreas, particularly about the lack of substance in the creation of the modern world (the wife as a harpy, etc.) But overall I found the film charming and lovely, perhaps because I’m predisposed to go along with Woody’s ‘ain’t life grand, ain’t love grand, ain’t it all confusing’ mentality.

    For me, the stereotyped versions of Bunuel and Dali, etc. were entertaining and not meant to be taken seriously. Is it ridiculous to suggest that some American suggested the plot for Bunuel’s future masterpiece? Yes. But that’s why it’s funny, so I don’t mind if it’s a little insulting. In fact, I didn’t mind the caricatures of these famous figures because I knew them to be caricatures; I didn’t feel so much that Gil was going back into the actual past, but into an imagined, nostalgia-created past. At some point Gil says “they’re all just like we’ve heard!” but obviously they couldn’t have been, because life is more complicated than that. So to me, the film creates a rose-colored version of the past to comment on how every generation looks back with rose-colored glasses; it feeds its own system. After all, Cotillard’s character takes herself backwards into another time that is “The Golden Age,” but as Gil realizes, the Golden Age is always what has come before, because we find the present so dissatisfying.

    As to your point about Inez, you are right that she is poorly drawn and quite a horrible person. But I think she, like the characters presented in the 1920s scenes, is also a caricature of a type. And for me that’s okay, because that’s the impact of nostalgia on the film. It works for me. Perhaps I’m allowing the film to get away too easily, but I didn’t mind that McAdams (who, as you said, is largely wasted in the film) was a horrid woman, because her horrid behavior allowed me to forgive Wilson for abandoning her for the streets of 1920s Paris and another woman. Did it bother me that their ‘break-up’ was about 2 seconds long? Yes. But it also made sense, since these people were clearly breaking up long before they came to Paris–she’s a $2,000 a chair person and he’d rather look at the rain. It’s okay with me that her character is poorly drawn, because the point is she’s a poor fit for him–she, like her character development, is shallow at best.

    • Joanna,

      I definitely agree that some of the caricatures are funny; Brody’s “rhinoceros” routine or Stoll’s “Think about it!” make me crack up every time. But they play more like 1920s-themed sketch comedy than an attempt to actually say anything about art, nostalgia, or the artists themselves. Regardless of whether Gil is in a real or imagined past, the film’s moral (roughly put, “We idealize the past”) is feeble and self-evident. And the film never suggests that the actual past was anything less than the fantasy Gil encounters.

      I appreciate Midnight in Paris as a series of mild jokes about famous people; I just don’t see how it’s teaching me anything about nostalgia that isn’t inherent in the definition of nostalgia. And as for Inez and the present… plot necessity doesn’t excuse paper-thin characterization. It’s possible to write bitchy, shallow characters in funny, layered ways; Woody himself has done it many times before. But Inez has a single, shrill note, and her relationship with Gil just feels so thrown together—they constantly discuss their future life together and constantly praise each other despite not having an ounce of chemistry or a single shared interest. I can’t think of a name for that other than “bad writing.”

      And if you mean to say that Gil’s nostalgia is also negatively skewing how he sees Inez and everyone else in the present, then why doesn’t he ever complain about her behavior to anyone, or seem even slightly perturbed by the horrible people who surround him? (Beyond his light disdain for Paul’s pedantry.) That seems less like nostalgia and more like screenplay-enabled tunnel vision.

  4. I completely agree. You said it better than I did.

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