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Woody Allen's 'Midnight in Paris' impresses viewers

By Nico Lang
On June 6, 2011

Last Friday night, I was lucky enough to catch Woody Allen's new film "Midnight in Paris," which was playing in nearly every single theatre that the Landmark Century Cinemas has to offer, and I am pleased to report that I could not have liked it more.

This giddy, romantic love letter to the French capital is easily his best work in over a decade–it dazzles, it delights, it ravishes. One has to reach as far back in his catalog as "Bullets Over Broadway" to find another that matches this film's delight and whimsy.

As a brief detour before I unleash this unorthodox review upon you, I know that I do not share this opinion with most of humanity, but I feel compelled to inform you that Mr. Allen is by far my favorite director. He's surely not the best director of all time (that's probably Bergman or something), but Woody remains the one whose work means most to me.

The first time I watched "Annie Hall," I was fifteen and huddled up on my living room couch, waiting for the day to start. I had passively checked the film out from the library, along with "Love Story" and "From Here to Eternity," and renting it didn't mean very much to me. I didn't know much about Woody Allen–except that he was Jewish, that he married his adopted daughter, and that my mother hated him. But as I watched, I sat almost completely motionless, feasting on the images unfolding before me. I knew that I wanted that kind of life, to talk and to think like that; I knew that I would not be the same again.

Movies do that. Art has the power to change you, to define entire stretches of your life; art can become like tiny olive branches from the past. Just as I can't disassociate Woody Allen from growing up, listening to Radiohead's "OK Computer" reminds me of the year I took off from school, one I spent holed up in my grandparents attic, reading Philip Roth and Jack Kerouac. I have a similar relationship with Woody's "Vicky Cristina Barcelona," a film whose thematically-driven characters used to be like people in my life, people that helped me through a strange and terrible breakup. On my camera bag, I even pinned a picture of Maria Elena, the tortured artist played by Penelope Cruz.

Now, I'm about to graduate, and I don't know exactly what to do with that yet. Much in the same way that Noah Baumbach's lethargic grads in "Kicking and Screaming" cannot seem to move on from a life that doesn't revolve around tests and papers, I don't know how to take the next step. I haven't prepared for any of my finals and haven't done my homework for weeks, mostly because I'm terrified of what happens now, of what the future means. All I have are questions.

When I went to review "Midnight in Paris," I prayed that I would love it. The rule of thumb with late period Woody Allen films is that every third one is good, and after "You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger" and "Whatever Works," boy, was he due. I was indifferent to the latter film and outright hated the former, increasingly finding Woody Allen's city hopping artistically bankrupt. For Woody, the extended European vacation was supposed to be the gimmick that connected other more profound themes in his work–like his version of Sufjan Stevens' 50 States Project–but not the raison d'etre of the work itself.

If the love letter to Paris that the film's opening comprises is any indication, Allen seems to have to rediscovered his sense of purpose in L'Hexagon, and the film itself actually sums Allen's European vacation quite nicely. At one point, a character observes that no piece of art will ever be as good as a city, meaning that art will never be as whole, complex or alive. This might seem like an oddly anti-intellectual stance from a celebrated film auteur–and not one I feel he totally believes. But as Owen Wilson's Gil is dragged deeper and deeper through the nostalgic catacombs of the city, Paris will come to embody this quixotic sentiment, in a number of odd ways.

At this juncture in the review, I would really, really love to ruin the surprise/entire plot for you–I'm notoriously one of "those" people – but as many critics have already stated, the less you know about it going in, the better. What I can tell you is that Owen Wilson plays the Woody Allen surrogate, in his freshest and liveliest performance to date, a hapless screenwriter (read: "hack") who is desperately seeking inspiration in the French capital.

However, what he is truly searching for is a glimpse of a Paris gone by, of the expatriate-populated Paris of the 1920's, the Paris of Hemingway, Gertrude Stein and F. Scott Fitzgerald. In so doing, Gil finds much more than he had bargained for. This discovery will cause him to question his current reality–a life lived with a social-climbing fiancée, Inez, played by Rachel McAdams in an uncharacteristically uncharismatic role. In a strange way, the proceedings become like Woody Allen's version of "Inception." (If you think I'm mad, consider that Marion Cotillard plays the exact same role in both films. Then tell me if that doesn't make you go, "hmm.")

Allen has explored themes of a life lived solely for nostalgia/art/the past before, most strikingly in "The Purple Rose of Cairo," but never before has he imbued such themes with such unbridled optimism. To quote YWMATDS (and Shakespeare) Allen's recent films have showed human nature to be "full of sound and fury, signifying nothing." In these works, his characters' all-encompassing neuroses doomed them repeat the same mistakes, like those poor people in Sartre's "No Exit."

However, "Midnight in Paris" allows its characters freedom in a way Woody never has before. Although I'm sure Woody still believes that life is full of sorrow and pity, "Midnight in Paris" shows that life can be sweet, life can be like Paris in the rain. Our dreams need not doom us to suffering, and they may offer us glimpses of a brighter future.

I can't tell you whether any of this will mean anything to you, because I am not you, but I can tell you that I feel like Woody Allen made this movie for me. Not for me in twenty years, but for the person I am right now. On one level, Gil's journey through literary Paris tickled the book nerd in me–those Hemingway jokes especially hit the mark–but on another level, his quest gave me a strange sense of hope. At the beginning of the film, I felt like Gil, wandering through a life I had not quite intended, but slowly opening up to the possibilities of an uncertain future. By the end, "Midnight in Paris" reminded me of why I got into movies in the first place: they taught me how to dream.

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