An American in Paris is literally enchanted by the city in the whimsical fairytale Midnight in Paris.
Gil (Owen Wilson) is a successful Hollywood screenwriter, but what he really wants to do is write the great American novel. Or at least write a great novel in the vein of other writers who spent time in Paris — Fitzgerald, Hemingway. His fiancée Inez (Rachel McAdams) is supportive-ish of this desire, but mostly she wants him not to throw away his/their future and to help her plan their life. They’ve come to Paris on vacation with her parents — John (Kurt Fuller) and Helen (Mimi Kennedy) — and the city has reinvigorated all of Gil’s literary longings.
Inez is getting tired of his moping around the city talking about his work and is delighted when they run into Paul (Michael Sheen) and Carol (Nina Arianda). Paul is a professor who’s in France to give a talk and he is pompously knowledgeable about all the high points of French culture — art, artists, wine, history, architecture. A day of Paul’s lectures about great sites has Gil beaten down, so when the suggestion to go dancing comes up, he heads off on his own for a walk around the city at night before going to bed.
As Inez predicted, however, Gil’s walk gets him lost. He ends up sitting on some steps near a church when the bells toll midnight. A chauffeured antique car approaches and slows, and the occupants wave him over and offer him a ride. They don’t speak a lot of English but they’re dressed up and drinking and they take him to a party. At the party, a man (Yves Heck) who looks remarkably like Cole Porter plays Cole Porter songs. The revelers mingle, sipping drinks from wide-mouthed cocktail glasses, and are clad in drop-waisted, sequin-covered dresses with feathers and jewels on their headbands. Gil meets Zelda (Alison Pill), a particularly boisterous girl with a Southern accent. She introduces him to her husband, also a writer, named Scott (Tom Hiddleston). When they decide to head elsewhere, Gil, Zelda and Scott end up in a café where they meet up with Scott’s friend and another writer, one Ernest Hemingway (Corey Stroll). When Gil mentions having some trouble with his book, Ernest suggests that Gil let his friend Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates) take a look at it.
Gil agrees and leaves the café, planning to meet up with Ernest later. When he goes back to ask him when and where, Gil finds that the café is now a Laundromat and there is no evidence of the 1920s Paris he was briefly in. After attempts to explain his adventure lead Inez to pronounce him suffering from a brain tumor, Gil is at the spot alone again the next night and is once more picked up by the antique car. This time, he finds Ernest and does make it to Gertrude Stein’s, where he meets Pablo Picasso (Marcial Di Fonzo Bo) and his current mistress, Adriana (Marion Cotillard). Gil is taken by Adriana and as he goes back to this world night after night he finds himself more caught up in romance, for her and for Paris of this golden age.
Of course one man’s golden age is another person’s present. Adriana tells Gil that the golden age is really Belle Epoque Paris a generation earlier. Nostalgia versus happiness in the present becomes the duel around which the movie gathers. Will Gil become wrapped up in the past or will these adventures let him improve his present?
Midnight in Paris is a fun fantasy, a literature-nerd’s day dream about what it would be like to be surrounded by his heroes and in the know about how significant they are. It has the cornball cuteness the better Woody Allen movies of the last five years have trafficked in — a kind of nostalgia of its own. Midnight in Paris is in Paris, not New York, and deals with relationships in a rather light-touch way, but it still very much feels like a Woody Allen movie. It is the sort of thing that would be nearly as successful as a staged reading as it is as a movie — the charm is as much in the playful dialogue as it is in the period sets and winks about famous characters. (There is, however, one particularly funny sight gag about this kind of time travel involving Gad Elmaleh, playing a detective hired to follow Gil.)
Midnight in Paris is ultimately kind of slight, particularly when it comes to fleshing out the female characters. But the movie works as a sweet and light little literary meringue. B
Rated PG-13 for some sexual reference and smoking. Written and directed by Woody Allen, Midnight in Paris is an hour and 28 minutes long and is distributed by Sony Pictures Classics.