There is, I’m certain, inherent in most people a nostalgia for a time and a culture they were never a part of. The reason is that they feel somehow disconnected or ill at ease with the present; they don’t like today’s music, or today’s painters, or today’s writers, or today’s movies. Because they believe everything was done better in the past, it becomes the standard for which all new things are measured. Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris tells the story of a person who openly thinks along these lines. His name is Gil (Owen Wilson), who is, we immediately see, very much inspired by the filmmaker that created him. He’s a writer from Los Angeles who has made his living as a script doctor. It pays him well, but he believes he’s doing inferior work. He’s in the process of writing a novel, and of course, it will be very nostalgic in setting and character.
The father of his fiancée, Inez (Rachel McAdams), has gone to Paris on a business trip, and the two decided to tag along for a vacation. Gil thinks very highly of Paris. He likes the people, the art, the history – it’s almost as if he belongs there. He would like it a whole lot more, however, if it were once again the 1920s; that’s when he believes art, writing, and culture were at their finest. The self-serving Inez repeatedly dismisses his nostalgia as being in love with an illusion. She takes nothing from Paris, apart from opportunities to spend time with an American professor named Paul (Michael Sheen). He’s the type of person that fancies himself an intellectual, and he saunters into every scene with the tact of a tour guide. Whatever it is regarding the arts, he has an opinion on it. And only his counts.
After a night of wine tasting, Gil decides to walk the streets alone, mostly in an attempt to avoid any further contact with Paul. An off-screen clock strikes midnight, at which point an early twentieth century automobile putters into view. The door opens; inside are a group of well-dressed people sipping champagne, and they invite Gil to join them. Within no time, he’s taken to a party, where he finds himself rubbing elbows with F. Scott Fitzgerald (Tom Hiddleston), his wife Zelda (Alison Pill), and Cole Porter (Yves Heck). At another venue, he will meet Ernest Hemingway (Corey Stoll), who speaks in short, direct sentences and gives the most intimidating looks. He will direct Gil to the open house of Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates), who often has intellectual debates with Pablo Picasso (Marcial Di Fonze Bo). In a plot development of sheer brilliance, she agrees to read Gil’s manuscript and offer suggestions for improvement.
As Gil follows a pattern of miraculous time travel – the 2000s by day, the 1920s by night – he begins to realize, long after we have already realized it, that he has absolutely nothing in common with Inez. He falls for a woman named Adriana (Marion Cotillard), a fashion student introduced as one of Picasso’s mistresses. She too longs for a bygone Parisian era, specifically the Belle Époque period of the 1890s. What this boils down is pretty basic, and it has little to do with the passage of time: Both Gil and Adriana have deluded themselves into believing that a life different from their own would be better. In pitting these characters against that reality, Allen does an amazing thing: He forces the audience to confront its own delusions about life. The more we yearn for what we never had, the less we appreciate what we have been given. You can either stay stuck in the past or learn how to make the most of the present.
As warm and resonant as this message is, Allen doesn’t stray too far from his trademark sense of humor. The more historical figures he meets, the funnier the movie gets. He will, for example, be introduced to Salvador Dali (Adrien Brody) and Luis Buñuel (Adrien de Van), the former oddly fixated on rhinoceroses. For any dedicated cinephile, the single funniest scene will probably be when Gil pitches Buñuel the idea for what would become his 1962 film The Exterminating Angel. You’d think Buñuel would immediately be taken with it, but in fact, he finds it rather confusing: “I don’t understand. Why can’t they leave the room?”
But don’t let Allen’s intellectual proclivities distract you. Midnight in Paris is above all a delightful fantasy, one that intelligently explores an almost universal personal struggle. It’s also a wonderful rebound from Allen’s previous effort, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, which was astonishingly bad. Rather than alienate us with nihilism, he draws us in by appealing to our own sense of nostalgia. It can also be viewed as a love letter to Paris, as evidenced by an opening montage that shows city life over the course of one day. We get the usual shots of French landmarks – the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triumph, the Louvre, the Paris Opera House – but we also get glimpses of anonymous little corners, all cobblestone and European quaintness. Not even the rain can ruin its allure; rather than look waterlogged and muddy, the City of Lights glistens like a sparkling diamond.