Sunday, October 09, 2011

Woody's Witching Hour

Colour me surprised that Midnight in Paris burst into UK cinemas a mere five months after its US release, but then you'll all have heard by now that this nostalgia piece by one of America's most prolific and speediest directors is his most financially successful film ever. Earlier this year, on the delayed release of You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger, I wrote this piece on Allen's last two films, closing with the question, "... will he ever recover his talent for funny, perceptive human insights, or even the romantic visual sense that was once so palatable?"

You've been waiting with baited breath for the answer, and, since it was rather fittingly released into the darkening twinkle of autumn's beginning, you didn't have to hold your breath and go red and collapse with exhaustion in the meantime. Midnight in Paris is Woody's best film in years; certainly his most vibrant since Match Point, and unlike that arch and slightly morbid exercise, this feels like classic Woody. It isn't, don't get me wrong, because he's still lost his touch at writing personable, funny, truthful female characters and in the final event, Rachel McAdams' shrill fiance almost sinks the entire ship.

You'd never be able to tell they're not really in love.
But if we put that aside - and, after so many years experiencing the same (and probably worse) from him, I have to, or I'll never enjoy anything ever again - Midnight in Paris is a film that sparkles with the romance and spirit of the city its set in. Again, a revelation - Woody's managed to capture the essence of a city again, after so baldly missing anything special in Barcelona and consistently misrepresenting London. The bizarrely prolonged montage of shots around Paris that begins the film worried, then relieved me; it was as if Woody was exhausting himself and the audience of all these generic shots, before approaching his real depiction of the city through the nostalgia trip that is the basis of the narrative. The imitation of such major historical cultural figures is so daringly brash that he pulls it off, the clearly fictional imaginings lending a joyous vibrancy that reflects off the walls, the steps and the pavements. The restraint he shows in shying away from any of the iconic buildings means that, even though it's a city chased down a hazily nostalgic rabbit hole, it comes alive because the central character is so in love with the setting.

They're looking at each other. I'd say that's a good first step towards romance.
And in Owen Wilson, Woody's found a substitute for himself who really works (whatever works won't do after all), and ensures that this feels more like one of the classic Woody-starrers than the past fifteen years of his back catalogue have. He's aloof and slightly rude without being unsympathetic, his foppishness subbing well for Woody's reediness. As perhaps befits the plot, the modern day cast are of little interest (though Michael Sheen has predictable fun as a pretentious pedant), but the players of '20s Paris shine, particularly Corey Stoll as an uncompromising, darkly charismatic Ernest Hemingway. And Marion Cotillard is just a shimmer away from undoing the damage McAdams' character does - winsome, elusive, though ultimately just a little too idealised.

To return to my months-old question, I'd be hard-pressed to say that there are any particularly revelatory human insights to be had here. That's a shame, because once upon a time, Woody Allen was one of those writers who could start a scene with a joke and end it with a revelation. Woody the scribe is still stuck in convention, ending the film with a message that's far too bluntly delivered, and rather at odds with his entire career of late. Does Woody actually recognise his own situation - a writer in need of a Gertrude Stein - in Wilson's? Doubtful. But Woody the director has livened up again, and the final point is this. Midnight in Paris, for the first time since, oh, Everyone Says I Love You (just fifteen years ago! ...), is a Woody Allen film genuinely alive with the sense of its title. It might not be Woody back on his unchallenged classical form but it's a Woody who seems to have recovered a sense of the magic of cinema, of the discovery of a troubled character's ventures, and of a sense of romantic purpose. The clock has struck, and I can spy Manhattan down the street. (B-)

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