Every so often, amid the watchable squiggles dominating his late-career output, Woody Allen produces a jewel, and “Midnight in Paris,” a comedy about a dissatisfied contemporary Californian who time-travels to 1920s Paris, achieves that distinction.
The film is mere pastry, and an ill-conceived major character dims the spark in spots. But an inspired confection, as this movie richly demonstrates, is itself a precious thing.
Basically, the movie is Allen in Wonderland, elevated by a clever premise and a vibrant execution. The setting and star — Paris and Owen Wilson — are fresh Allen terrain. The story is a supernatural fable, a la Allen’s “The Purple Rose of Cairo,” and a romantic comedy, with Paris as the love interest.
Wilson plays Gil, a Hollywood screenwriter with novelist aspirations who is visiting Paris with his material-minded fiancee, Inez (Rachel McAdams), and her conservative parents. In these environs where Monet painted and great modern minds philosophized, Gil pines for the scene of the 1920s.
Enter a vintage car, which transports Gil to that famed era.
Suddenly, a bowled-over Gil is partying with Scott (Tom Hiddleston) and Zelda (Alison Pill) Fitzgerald, drinking with Ernest Hemingway (Corey Stoll), and receiving writing tips from Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates). At Stein’s salon, Picasso is at the easel!
L’amour happens when Gil meets Adriana (Marion Cotillard), a fashion designer and serial artist’s mistress.
Back in the present, Gil clashes with Inez. While she shops or socializes with insufferably pompous friend Paul (Michael Sheen), Gil repeatedly returns to the past.
Allen’s message kicks in when Adriana reveals that she, too, yearns for a golden age, the Belle Epoque. Nostalgia is delusion, Gil realizes. Perhaps those weren’t the days, after all.
The film falters somewhat in the present-day scenes, especially with Inez, a tedious rich-girl caricature. McAdams deserves better.
The 1920s material, however, effervesces, and while Paris-in-the-’20s junkies will have the most fun, it’s a kick to see one cultural notable after another popping up, portrayed by top-notch actors.
Bates shines as a down-to-earth Stein. Adrien Brody is hilarious as Salvador Dali, seen in a witty surrealism sequence. Stoll’s manly Hemingway, too, is a hoot, though his screen time seems excessive when you consider how little we see of Pill’s potential-rich Zelda.
Wilson, meanwhile, doing a laid-back but not shabby job of channeling Woody, provides a solid anchor presence and keeps the nutty premise going strong.
Fluff this all may be, but when Allen, never one for big-picture spiritual questing, wonders, via Wilson’s Gil, whether Paris might just be the center of the universe, this bright fantasy has viewers delighted to play along.
Midnight in Paris
Starring Owen Wilson, Rachel McAdams, Marion Cotillard, Michael Sheen
Written and directed by Woody Allen
Running time 1 hour 34 minutes