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.