Screenwriter Gil Pender (Owen Wilson, cast as the best simulacra of Woody Allen since John Cusack in Bullets Over Broadway), flees his fiancee Rachel McAdams (whom we know is superficial because she’s always shopping and Allen never misses a chance to film her in heels) by stepping into a magic car that transports him to the Paris of the 1920′s. Ernest Hemingway (Corey Stoll) lectures him on fighting and grace under pressure. Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates) praises his aborted novel (an autobiographical one). Meanwhile Adriana (Marion Cotillard) finds his broken nose and J.C. Pennys ties things of infinite wonder.
The Rachel McAdams half of the movie is spectacularly lame. I have no patience anymore for Woody’s hamhanded exposition (e.g. “Remember we have that private exhibit at the museum tonight. Paul is a Monet expert, you know”). But because Woody skeptics like Stephanie Zacharek have praised Midnight in Paris as his best-film-since-What’s-New-Pussycat?, I expected to do less work than necessary. The most taxing part was deciding whether to accept Wilson’s 5×7 notecard recreations of his literary heroes, all of whom utter the platitudes for which they’re famous without reveling in their freedom of movement (Adrien Brody is the exception: as Salvador Dali, he forgoes even the pretense of a realistic performance and sticks to caricature, uttering the most preposterous pronunciation of “rhinoceros” captured on film). Are these recreations shallow because the Wilson character is himself shallow? Wilson as actor brings no intellectual conviction to the part, and I can’t tell whether this is intentional. I don’t want to believe that Allen, a reasonably well read fellow according to interviews, still regards Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald in such undergraduate terms (Zelda was actually correct about Hemingway: “Bullfighting, bullslinging, and bullshit”). Still, there are grace notes. The best bit: Hemingway guzzling a bottle of wine and shouting, “Who wants to FIGHT?” Sharper dialogue would have made Kathy Bates an awesome Gertrude Stein, and Thor‘s Tom Hiddleston has the right profile if nothing else for Fitzgerald. I counted two moments of genuine wonder: the closeup Allen reserves to Wilson when he realizes he’s really meeting his idols; and a giggle and gurgle of delight from Cotillard upon accepting Wilson’s intentions (it’s her best screen acting to date).
Quiz Show still boasts the most seamless integration of references I’ve seen in a contemporary film. Although in fairness that film is a drama, director Robert Redford and screenwriter Paul Attansio either trust the audience enough or say fuck it when Dick Goodwin (Rob Morrow), in a eureka moment, confides to his wife, “This guy has tea with Bunny Wilson!” We’re not told who Bunny Wilson is. Neither character says, “Bunny Wilson! You mean Edmund Wilson? Why, he’s the most important literary critic in America right now!” Allen comes closest in a gag between Wilson and Luis Bunuel (Adrien de Van ), but the scene dribbles past its appointed time.
Judging by the response of the morning viewing I attended, the audience is ready to welcome this as another Woody comeback: frothier than Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Match Point, and the other self-appointed ones. So starved are they for adult films that they’ll accept Midnight in Paris, with its tags of erudition and colorless evocation of the City of Lights, as the real thing. “Woody Allen” has itself become a tag of erudition — a reminder of quality, of the audience’s thirties and forties when they anticipated Hannah and her Sisters, Radio Days, and Crimes and Misdemeanors. When an old biddy crowed to her friend, “At least this wasn’t a 3-D thing!” I wanted to say, “Maybe the glasses wouldn’t have made this look 2-D.”