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Sunday, January 1, 2012

Midnight in Paris

I'll have the rest of my review of the films of the year up within the next few days but, in the meantime, a word or two about the latest Woody Allen film. 

Midnight in Paris

Ever since Match Point, it seems like every other film released by Woody Allen is hailed as a comeback or "his best film since...", to the point that it has become hard to take any of these claims all together seriously. Nonetheless, that doesn't change the fact that Midnight in Paris simply is Woody's best film since at least Everybody Says I Love You back in the mid 90s. If nothing else, it's unquestionably one of the most gentle, most nostalgic and most romantic films in his long and storied career. 

Quite unusually for a Woody Allen film, I'm actually reticent about giving the film's plot away. At first glance, the film looks set to be a very typical Woody film with its well-to-do protagonists indulging in long intellectual discussions, expensive cuisine and stormy relationships. It's not even much of a change anymore that the "action" takes place in upmarket Europe, rather than upmarket New York because he's been mining this ground repeatedly over the last decade. Sure, the dialogue is funny and the acting top notch (Michael Sheen is especially at his typical scene-stealing best) but that is fairly rote for a Woody Allen film. Even his relative stinkers usually boast at least a few funny lines and impressive performances.

It doesn't take long, however, before the film is turned on its head - again, I'm not going to reveal precisely how, as none of the film's publicity does either - and an apparently slightly above average Woody Allen film becomes something really rather special. Effectively taking the unexplained magical aspects of The Purple Rose of Cairo and mixing it with the unabashed nostalgia of Radio Days, Midnight in Paris manages to feel far fresher than its basic ingredients would dare suggest. And by dialing back on of the bleak pessimism, with which Woody is normally - if not always correctly - associated, Midnight In Paris is the Woody Allen film that even non-fans will enjoy.

In part a love letter to Paris - or, more precisely, a love letter to the love that is inspired by Paris - Midnight in Paris is a film whose primary concern is nostalgia. It's a film that is filled to the brim with literary references (it's far from essential but brushing up on the literary scene of 1930s Paris certainly can't hurt before seeing the film), great jokes, hilarious cameo appearances, beautiful cinematography and bucket loads of unabashed romance, but the film is ultimately concerned with the idea of nostalgia - of desiring a time and a place different from one's own.

The reason why Midnight in Paris works as well as it does isn't simply because Woody drenches everything - from the plot, characters, setting and jokes, to the very feel of the film itself - in nostalgia but it's that he contrasts that rose-tinted nostalgia with the idea that, in the end, living in the past and/ or wishing you were in another place entirely, may play havoc on that crucial ability to live your own life in the now. It's a simple conceit, but it is one that adds a whole other intellectual dimension to a film whose primary target is - even with all its literary jokes - undoubtedly the heart, rather than the brain.     

Not to give Woody Allen's peerless writing and direction all the credit though, part of the reason the film works so well is because of its spot-on casting. It features a Who's Who list of supporting roles and cameo performances and, from Adrien Brody playing a particularly outlandish historical/artistic figure to Rachel McAdams tapping into her inner Mean Girl, every role is perfectly cast and brilliantly played. The film's greatest triumph in terms of casting though, must surely be its two central performances.

Owen Wilson is not an obvious choice to the play the inevitable Woody Allen stand-in but it is precisely this incompatibility that results in, not only one of the best Woody stand-ins to date, but one of the very best performances that Wilson has ever given. His trademark easy-going nature couldn't be farther away from Woody Allen's (in)famous neurotic screen presence but, rather than the two extremes cancelling each other out, they make Owen Wilson's character a truly compelling, immensely likeable and decidedly different version of this old Woody staple.

Marion Cotillard may not have the most screen-time but her crucial role as the almost ethereal, dream girl that enchants and influences Wilson's character throughout the film, is a perfect fit for her as she proves, once again, to be one of the best actresses around. That she has somewhat surprisingly electrifying chemistry with Owen Wilson certainly doesn't hurt matters either.

Admittedly, Midnight in Paris isn't a perfect film - the earlier parts of the film are somewhat mundane and the literary nature of some of the humour might not be to everyone's taste - but only a curmudgeon would let these small flaws get in the way of what is otherwise a funny, charming delight of a film that is both easily one of Woody Allen's best films and, flat out, one of the best films of 2011. It's simply a perfect way to end 2011 or, if you're not in the habit of running out to see new films on the day they're released - a perfect way to start 2012.

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