We Love the City

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Midnight in Paris and the terrible power of nostalgia

midnight-paris[1]For most of my life, I’ve been the biggest Woody Allen fan I know. I’ll defend his body of work until the cows come home, and sing the praises of everything from Annie Hall and Love & Death to Sweet & Lowdown and Deconstructing Harry. I adore his scripts, themes, and general philosophies, as well as his ability to get the best out of any cast, no matter how naturally talented they may be.

So it comes as a bit of a shock that I find myself annoyed by the accolades bestowed upon his latest film, Midnight in Paris, up to and including three Oscar nominations. It’s a fine film, and easily one of the best he’s made in the past ten years, but seems grossly out of place when talking about the best films of 2011.

In other circumstances, Midnight in Paris is the sort of film that gets nominated for awards because the filmmaker’s never won anything. But Woody Allen’s already won three Oscars personally, was obviously the main factor in Annie Hall‘s Best Picture win, and been nominated 17 times, so there’s no danger of him dying without achieving the proper amount of recognition and respect.

But Midnight in Paris is all about nostalgia, and it’s fair to say that nostalgia – both for the era depicted in the film and the days when Allen was a great filmmaker – has played a part in generating affection for for the film.

Perhaps you’re nostalgic for the time Woody Allen made consistently good movies on a regular basis. Depending on your tastes, that could be the seventies (Sleeper, Love & Death, Annie Hall, Manhattan), the eighties (Hannah and Her Sisters, Zelig, Crimes & Misdemeanors), or even the nineties (Bullets Over Broadway, Mighty Aphrodite, Sweet & Lowdown).

It’s fair to say, however, that no one will ever be nostalgic for the Woody Allen films of the 21st century. He’s made some good films (Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Match Point, and yes, even Midnight in Paris), but they’re outnumbered by the forgettable (Whatever Works) and the downright awful (Curse of the Jade Scorpion).

Midnight in Paris marks a return to form for Allen, but only by the standards of our lowered expectations. It has many of the hallmarks of a great Woody Allen film, but also the flaws of a filmmaker who didn’t bother to fully develop his ideas or characters.

Hitting the nail on the head, over and over

Midnight in Paris is all about nostalgia and romance. Gil (Owen Wilson) loves Paris, and wants to be a humble novelist instead of a successful screenwriter. His fiancee (Rachel McAdams) thinks it’s all rather silly, and enjoys the material comforts provided by a successful screenwriter. Somehow – it’s never explained, and I’m fine with that – Gil travels back in time to the 1920s, where he meets all of his literary heroes and embraces the life of a true artist. He meets Adriana (Marion Cotillard), a beautiful woman  who loves artists, so that works out quite well.

So the past is great, as long as you get to hang out with cool people and don’t have to deal with influenza or a world war. But then, through equally unexplained means, Gil and his love interest travel back in time again to the turn of the century, which is Adriana’s ideal of the perfect era. They meet her artistic heroes, who, in the least surprising twist ever, are nostalgic for yet another era.

The idea that no one is ever really happy is hardly foreign to a Woody Allen film – everyone’s either miserable or horrible, as he said in Annie Hall – but it’s made in the clumsiest, least interesting way possible here. I’d almost call it a running gag, except for the fact that it’s not even funny the first time it happens, let alone the third. The entire plot revolves around a deus ex machina, but resolving it with one seems particularly lazy, and it’s disappointing that a filmmaker who’s been described as “cerebral” as often as Allen has feels the need to hit the audience over the head with his message.

What happened to the women?

There have been fifteen Oscar nominations for actors appearing in Allen’s films, not including Woody’s own Best Actor nomination for Annie Hall. A solid majority of the nominations went to actresses, and five of the six winners were women (including Dianne Wiest twice). Allen has consistently written interesting and entertaining female characters, so it’s surprising and disappointing that the female cast of Midnight in Paris is so dull.

Rachel McAdams’ character is shallow, materialistic, and utterly unsuited to Gil. She is, to anyone who sympathizes with Gil, a horrible person. There are no redeeming qualities on display, or even any sort of explanation as to why she and Gil were attracted to each other in the first place.

Marion Cotillard fares little better as her opposite: She loves artists.  She’s kind, intelligent, sympathetic, and, being Marion Cotillard, gorgeous and elegant. But that’s all there is; she’s as perfect as McAdams’ character is awful.

Not every character needs to be fully-rounded and three-dimensional – it’s not like Jennifer Tilly got an Oscar nomination for being nuanced and subtle – but it would help if they were at least interesting or entertaining. They sit on the fence between actual characters and entertaining stereotypes, blandly signalling plot points and themes like extremely attractive highway signs.

What happened to Allen’s ability to get great performances out of his actresses? Just three years ago, he helped Penelope Cruz to a Best Supporting Actress win. It can’t be about talent – McAdams and Cotillard are both strong actresses, and Allen’s elevated lesser talent to excellence.

One of Midnight in Paris’ greatest strengths is its variety of small, entertaining performances – Corey Stroll’s Hemingway is perfect, Adrien Brody’s Salvador Dali is hilarious, and I want to see an entire film about Tom Hiddleston and Alison Pill (the sole female standout) as the Fitzgeralds. They show up, nail their characters, and move on. So why are the main characters, aside from Owen Wilson’s Woody stand-in, so uninteresting?

The Woody Allen Sketch Comedy Hour

Perhaps it’s because Midnight in Paris feels as though it was conceived around those small, one-joke performances. Woody Allen’s interest in his literary heroes goes back some time, so it’s not surprising he’d eventually want to make a film about them. But the thing that makes the film memorable – a guy goes back in time and meets a bunch of famous artists – also reduces the amount of time for a coherent plot and character depth. Ultimately, it suffers from too much of a good thing – Hemingway is great, and even relevant to the central theme, but at a certain point it’s all too much.

Do Luis Bunuel, Man Ray, Pablo Picasso, or even Dali add anything, or are they merely a never-ending parade of one-note jokes? It’s perfectly fine if they are jokes, since many of them are quite funny, but that interpretation contradicts the idea that Midnight In Paris is a particularly artistic film worthy accolades and awards. Yes, it’s funny and well-executed but so are many other films. (Bridesmaids, for example, was both funnier and more effectively dramatic.) And if we’re handing out awards for loving historical homages, Captain America deserves some recognition.

Memories of Woody

Midnight in Paris is the sort of movie we think Woody Allen used to make: It has clever dialogue, literary references, a great ensemble cast, a distinctive sense of place, and  philosophical debates about things like the eternal conflict between art versus commerce.

But nostalgia seldom holds up to scrutiny: Woody Allen made a lot of movies like this, but most of them were quite a bit better.  He made silly, clever comedies like Love & Death, but always undercut any attempts at being genuinely profound and meaningful. He made more serious dramas like Manhattan and Hannah and Her Sisters, and humorous-yet-serious films like Annie Hall, but he never let the jokes overwhelm the story or characters. Midnight in Paris isn’t funny enough to be a great comedy, and it has too many weak characters and plot holes to be taken seriously as a drama.

Woody Allen has clearly passed the point in his career where he’s interested in experimenting – Vicky Cristina Barcelona is the most creative film he’s made in the past decade, and that’s largely due to the fact that some people speak Spanish in it. Midnight in Paris is one of the most comfortable films Woody Allen has ever made, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing – it does a lot of things well, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with nice, safe entertainment. I left the theatre quite pleased with the film, and a DVD viewing left me with the same feeling.

But that alone doesn’t make it a great film. If you’re going to play things safe, you’d better execute them perfectly. Allen apparently didn’t care that the film deteriorates into painful obviousness in its final act, or that the romantic interests have nothing interesting about them.

Midnight in Paris is a pleasant film, and a reminder that Woody Allen hasn’t completely lost his touch. But when people plan their Woody Allen retrospectives a decade or two from now, Midnight in Paris will be nowhere to be seen, and it’s equally out of place in a discussion of the best films of 2011.