Even French First Lady Carla Bruni-Sarkozy gets a walk-on part in “Midnight in Paris,” as Allen box-ticks his way around the city, musing about its 1920s heyday -- and warning of the perils of nostalgia.
“It’s a big trap to think living in another time would be better,” the 75-year-old director told reporters after the premiere. “When you think back to earlier times, you only extrapolate the nice things.”
“When you went to a dentist, there was no Novocain or anything, there was no air conditioning, there was none of the things that you’ve gotten used to that make your life palatable,” said Allen, eyebrows arched over his eyeglasses. “I really wouldn’t like to go back to any time other than right now.”
“Midnight in Paris” is the story of Gil (played by Owen Wilson), a Hollywood scriptwriter and novelist manque who -- like Allen -- shamelessly idealizes Paris. He’s in town with his controlling fiancee, Inez (Rachel McAdams), and her rich parents. Dad is a diehard Republican with Tea Party leanings; Mom is a snooty matron who would readily blow $20,000 on a chair.
Gil’s not as dopey as he looks. Though he failed freshman English, the California boy is clued up on 1920s Paris and its leading lights. He’d give anything to live in their midst.
One day, Gil and Inez run into Paul (Michael Sheen) -- a pontificating know-it-all -- and his wife Carol. Soon, all four are at a fancy drinks party, where Paul terms the wine “slightly more tannic than the ‘59.”
This is where Bruni-Sarkozy comes in. As their elegant Rodin Museum guide, she leads them through the pine-lined gardens, and politely corrects Paul when he gets the name of Rodin’s wife wrong (“I am certain, Monsieur,” she says, pursing her lips). The former model pops up twice more, translating book excerpts for Gil (their relationship stops there).
Gil is so enthralled with the city that he strolls through it at all hours, alone. One night, he’s invited into a vintage car by champagne-swigging revelers, who take him to what seems a 1920s theme party, where the women have plumed headbands, the men have crinkled hair, and the guests have familiar names.
Gil, as incredulous as the rest of us about his dream-like experience, has a series of side-splitting encounters. One is with a rugged young man introducing himself as Hemingway, who wears brown suede and speaks in a preachy macho monotone.
“You’re too self-effacing,” he booms at the bewildered Gil. “It’s not manly.”
The plot twists get so outrageously funny that you wonder how Allen could end the movie convincingly. The answer is, he doesn’t. The closing scenes are corny, and include a banal exchange between Gil and a dazzling artist’s muse (played by Marion Cotillard).
The real surprise is Wilson’s performance. In Allen’s own words, “Owen is the opposite of me,” which would make him seem out of place, offhand. Wilson, after all, was the unrepentant cad in “Wedding Crashers,” chasing bridesmaids at nuptials he was not invited to. Here, his full-lipped pout and stunned gaze work well. Bigger roles may follow.
The movie’s real star, of course, is Paris. Darius Khondji’s cinematography shows every one of its landmarks at their postcard best.
Still, “Midnight in Paris” is no match for Allen’s previous work, “You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger,” a portrait of 21st-century London that was both cartoonlike and true to life.
In the end, “Midnight in Paris” may well be nothing more than Allen’s therapeutic attempt to come to terms with the regret of not having lived in the French capital himself.
“Midnight in Paris” (produced by Mediapro, Versatil Cinema and Gravier Productions) opened in France May 11 and will open in the U.S. on May 20.
The 64th Cannes Film Festival runs through May 22. Information: http://www.festival-cannes.com.
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(Farah Nayeri writes for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)
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