Posted by: dougery | June 30, 2011

Midnight in Paris (2011)

After reading more or less glowing reviews, watching a suitably intriguing trailer and receiving a “moral imperative” to go and see it from my best friend in college, L and I decided to take in the latest Woody Allen movie this past weekend. I suppose ‘reading’ the reviews is a bit disingenuous as I didn’t actually read any piece of criticism. However I was aware of 90% + ‘freshness’ rating that Midnight in Paris (2011) enjoyed and on a site that aggregates as many reviews as Rotten Tomatoes does, I felt pretty confident that there would be something to like.

Images Cinema is a tiny arthouse in ‘downtown’ Williamstown. I use the scare quotes because downtown consists of about 2 and a half streets, maybe 4 or 5 blocks total. There’s a single coffee-shop. 2 bars. A barbershop. Antiques. You get the idea.

Images is small but fun. We’d gone there a few times, usually on half-price Tuesday evenings, which sadly no longer exist. We also went there to watch the Academy Awards, as we are still those people who don’t get any television channels at home. I still remember how furious L got when a local improv group came out into the theater during the red carpet portion of the show and the volume was turned down so that they could ‘do comedy.’ Scare quotes in this case can be taken in the literal sense. While L looked up at the screen with sad eyes trying to read Good Sir Tim Gunn’s lips, I watched as a few grown men enacted the movie Inception if it were about making a sandwich. This basically boiled down to one guy (the skinnier one) playing the “Inception theme” on an accordion while the other guy (the fatter one, obviously) went about ‘dramatically’ making and eating a sandwich of 6 layers or whatever.

Let’s just say that those guys were lucky to finish the night with their teeth as L sat and figuratively crackled her knuckles.

But this is about Midnight in Paris. A fine, funny, clever movie with just enough fluffy poignancy to not evaporate immediately after viewing.

The plot, and its an inspired one, is that a disaffected Hollywood writer (Owen Wilson, in his best role since Eli Cash) is on holiday with his fiancee (Rachel McAdams) in Paris. Wilson is in love with the idea of Paris, especially the romantic Paris of the 20s, and is strongly considering moving there permanently to finish his big novel. A sizable rift is visible in his relationship with McAdams and after a trying day of being tourists, Wilson goes for a late evening stroll by himself. He is promptly picked up by a strange car full of carousing dapper gents and ladies who take him to a party and prove to be, well, let’s just say they are very famous literary celebrities from a time gone by. Wilson becomes increasingly disenchanted with his real life, comes up with more excuses to go out at night alone, and the movie advances from there to a somewhat inevitable conclusion.

The theme of the movie is that it is dangerous to look back on times gone by and imagine they were some kind of ideal epoch. In Wilson’s defense (for he loves the 20’s), it is preposterous the sheer number of ridiculously talented folks were hanging in Paris at the time.

The most clever part of the film, for me, was how the movie turns the educated viewer against him or herself. There is this wonderful pedantic character played by Michael Sheen in first half of the film who steals just about every scene he is in. A lot of the film’s comedy runs through his ‘well actually…’ and ‘Were you aware that…’ on topics ranging from sculpture to landscape architecture to wine and so forth. Anyone who has spent a half second of time in the world of academia knows this guy. Hates this guy. And most importantly of all, somewhere deep down, is this guy.

The parade of famous writers and artists that dot the second half of Midnight in Paris turn us into Sheen’s character. We simply can’t wait until Wilson runs into the next bigger-than-life artist. And we’re scouring them with our eyes, making sure they are everything we need them to be. The film’s genius is to overwhelm us with their performances. Their rhetoric is hilariously in character, they expand to embody their own over-sized legends.

If Midnight in Paris is successful, and I’d argue that it is, we walk away feeling an odd mixture of discontent with our ‘boring’ contemporary existence along with being fully aware that we don’t belong anywhere else. That it is a waste of time to pine for the past but a whole lot of fun to imagine what spending a little time there would be like. And that last bit is key. Because the past is imaginary, it can be anything we need it to be, so of course it is gonna be riot. The trick is stealing a little of that latent potentiality and bringing it forward to the here and now.

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Responses

  1. ack. i’ve been WANTING to see this now i HAVE to see it. now there’s just the matter of finding the time in which to see it.

  2. O, you will love it. It is something we would have all gone to see at the Landmark, then gone to cafe babareeba, or the wiener’s circle and then somewhere else for ice-cream.

  3. Saw it last night in Albany, NY. LOVED it. Vintage Woody.


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