Midnight in Paris is a very pleasant film. It want you to have a decent time while watching it, and it tries really hard not to upset you in any way. While it’s not exactly about the city of Paris, it features enough of the city that those who just want to go on a sightseeing tour will be satisfied. If you want to see Owen Wilson walk around a recreation of 1920’s Paris, interspersed with a few moments of the city in 2010, you’ll be pretty happy, I think. If, however, you want a terribly compelling story or a lot of sharp humor, you’ll want to look elsewhere.
We begin in modern day Paris, where Gil Pender (Wilson) and his fiancée, Inez (Rachel McAdams), have traveled to Paris with Inez’s parents as tag-alongs on a business trip. Gil is a writer, one of Hollywood’s most in-demand screenwriters, although he’s currently working on a novel, which provides him with an excuse to leave whenever he feels “inspiration” coming on. I don’t know if Inez actually does anything, but she gets pretty much whatever she wants and seems pretty happy with the relationship.
One night, after managing to worm his way out of dancing, Gil finds himself confronted with a very old looking car that contains people who are beckoning him to get in. Always one to succumb to peer pressure — especially when the peers are Parisian strangers — he hops in and finds himself magically transported back to the 1920s. He meets a bunch of famous people like Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald (Alison Pill and Tom Hiddleston), Ernest Hemingway (Corey Stoll) and Pablo Picasso (Marcial Di Fonzo Bo). It becomes the night of his life, but after Hemingway promises to take Gil’s manuscript to his friend, Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates), Gil leaves the tavern and finds himself back in 2010, unable to get back to the 20s.
He soon realizes that he has to wait for the old car every midnight at the same spot in order to be taken back to the past for a few hours. It’s in the past where he meets Adriana (Marion Cotillard), a woman who connects with Gil very easily. Gil finds himself in the middle of a romantic comedy, having to choose between his fiancée with whom he isn’t currently getting along, and this French woman who lives in the 1920s. I suppose this is a situation ripe for comedy, but the film veers away from many jokes, instead relying on references to random famous artists to provide laughter.
Most of the film just revolves around Gil walking around two different time periods of Paris, having a good time with one woman and the opposite with the other, trying to gain inspiration from the famous writers that he encounters, and learning a little something about nostalgia in the process. There isn’t much of a plot, the only character development comes from Gil learning that living in the past isn’t necessarily the best thing ever, and the jokes are few and far between.
But at least Paris looks nice. A few characters call it the most beautiful city in the world, and the film almost convinced me that this is true. Darius Khondji’s camerawork milks the city until it’s dry, and if you find yourself wanting to visit Paris yourself, he’ll consider his job done. While there’s a central character, you’ll probably find yourself more engaged with the scenery than with him. He is, after all, just a writer who longs for the past — a past he didn’t even get to experience first hand … until now.
I’m sure there are people out there who are wondering just how the time travel mechanic in Midnight in Paris works. Those people will not be satisfied by the film, as it doesn’t explain it whatsoever. It’s magic, plain and simple, and if you’re hoping for some sort of sci-fi explanation, you’ll be disappointed. This is a fairy tale with a moral at the end, and that’s as deep as it gets. If one late reveal wasn’t made, I would have assumed it was all in Gil’s head for all the sense that the time travel makes.
Unless you’re a lover of classic literature and art, you won’t find a lot of laughs within Midnight in Paris. The dialogue is more reliant on off-hand references to the past that it forgets that characters need to interact with each other on a higher level than this: “Wow, is that [insert writer’s name here]? He’s [insert stereotypical characteristic here].” If you’re not as enamored with these figures as writer-director Woody Allen, then you’ll probably spend most of the film wondering exactly what he’s going on about and why you should care.
You will grow to like Gil as a character, if only because of the sense of awe the Owen Wilson brings to the role. When he meets these people, his surprise and fascination with them seems genuine, and the film largely works because of that. It’s almost a rarity in films when something fantastical happens, as the characters accept it very early on. Gil is surprised throughout, right up until the end, which is nice to see. Wilson’s a likable enough actor as well, and fits into the role effortlessly. Supporting work goes to the aforementioned McAdams, Bates and Cotillard, as well as Adrien Brody, Michael Sheen and Léa Seydoux.
Midnight in Paris is the kind of harmless and pleasant, but otherwise worthless film that I can’t really recommend, unless of course you really want to see some gorgeous shots of paris. Its plot is weak, it only has one real character, and the humor is lacking. It’s a very easy watch, sure, and it’s not going to upset anyone even when it does get kind of preachy at the end, but it just isn’t a very satisfying watch, either.