There’s an interesting thing that happens when a writer becomes a celebrity. Woody Allen is probably the only screewriter I can think of who has this issue. Sure, there are some famous screenwriters out there, but Allen’s life is uniquely well documented, and not just by himself. Consequently, there’s a temptation to look in his narratives for crossover with the well known, larger narrative that is his life, especially since the man spent so many years playing unabashed proxies of himself before age forced him to cast actors who could better disguise his arrested development. Anyway, I’ll do my best to discuss Midnight in Paris in an ignorant, unbiased vacuum, and hopefully thus better judge it on its own merits.
Nostalgia is the name of the game in Midnight in Paris. When Gil, a successful screenwriter working on a novel, visits Paris with his fiance Inez, he longs for a simpler time, when great artists of every medium roamed the streets. Thanks to a little bit of midnight magic, Gil is transported to the 1920s, where he meets greats like Earnest Hemmingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Salvador Dali and countless others. Embraced as one of their peers, Gil gets to live his dream, and as he falls in love with Adriana, he grows distant from his fiance Inez.
There’s a whiff of narcissistic wish fulfillment in the writing when Gil encounters great artists and they instantaneously embrace him and his work, or when he effortlessly pries Adrianna away from Pablo Picasso. Personally, nothing puts me more at a distance from a character as everyone telling the audience he’s great, but in Midnight in Paris, it serves as a counterpoint to how out of place Gil feels in his own era: he hates his job (incidentally, it’s one that I’m jealous of), and he (correctly) believes his fiance is cheating on him with Paul, a blow hard intellectual.
The two eras stand in obvious contrast to one another for Gil, but all characters surrounding him are essentially caricatures. In the present, Gil’s fiance is little more than a shrew, and in the past, the artists are little more than everything their reputations suggested they were. Nobody really gets a chance to reveal any unexpected depth, or an unseen layer. Consequently, Midnight in Paris can feel a little bit like Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure for the arthouse sect: a fun, flimsy stream of mostly superfluous cameos.
Fun is fine, and Midnight in Paris is fun. It’s a light, breezy film that has an effortlessness about it, in good ways and bad. Despite Gil’s vocation, it doesn’t really seem interested in the ‘work’ of writing. The content and plot does little to prove its theme, or Gil’s suppositions. When he accuses his wife of cheating, he doesn’t really have much to go on besides a petty jealousy/contempt for her friend Paul. Instead of investigating or gathering evidence, she merely confesses after some prodding. When Gil and Adrianna are transported to her favorite era, la belle epoch, he asserts that people belong in their own era, but he has nothing to motivate that conclusion beyond his unwillingness to spend time in that particular time line. Nothing ever occurred in the 1920s or present that proved his nostalgia misplaced, yet rather than be labeled a hypocrite, Gil simply dooms himself back to the present.
Midnight in Paris merely presumes Gil is correct rather than proves it through the unfurling of its plot. It knows it’s wrong to wallow in fantasy or nostalgia, but it’s clearly not really sure why. Nothing really keeps Gil in his era; after his engagement to Inez is called off, he has no obligations that he’s shirking. For Gil’s assertion to Adrianna in the past to hold any water, he would have needed to suffer repercussions for his forays into the 1920s, but he never does. He just hangs around with all his heroes and gains invaluable insight into the world and his own life. The body of Midnight in Paris falls far short of proving its conclusions, but maybe that’s not it’s truest goal. It’s tourism, a chance to live in a beautiful time vicariously through Gil. He has to go back to his era because we as an audience have to go back to our’s. When the movie is over, so is our journey. If we don’t get to keep hanging around, why should Gil? That would just be depressingly unfair.