By Eleanor Ringel Cater
Bad news, Big Apple.
Woody Allen has found himself a new love. Her name is Paris.
And, almost as if to rub it in, Allen opens his new feather-light “Midnight in Paris” with a montage of the City of Light that’s similar to the classic opening of 1979’s “Manhattan,” with its luscious George Gershwin score.
However, “Midnight in Paris” doesn’t present itself quite so grandly. The music is jauntily nostalgic, more Edith Piaf in a good mood.
As it turns out, Allen is in a good mood, too. First indicator: he’s cast Golden Boy Owen Wilson as his surrogate self. Wilson plays Gilbert, a would-be novelist who constantly condemns himself for selling out, i.e., for being a hugely successful Hollywood hack instead of a penniless genius.
He’s in Paris with his lovely, bossy fiancée Inez (a pitch-perfect Rachel McAdams) and her slightly unpalatable parents who don’t especially like their prospective son-in-law.
We’re not even certain Inez likes him all that much herself. She prefers going to clubs with the ersatz erudite Paul (Michael Sheen); Gil would rather wander through rain-slick Paris streets, which cues her somewhat exasperated comment, “Why do you always like cities in the rain?”
Ah, but wet streets aren’t all Gil likes. He’s nostalgic for Paris in the ’20s, when Scott and Zelda (Fitzgerald, of course) partied with Hemingway at Cocteau’s place while Cole Porter played his own ditties on the piano.
And then, late one night, as the clock chimes midnight, Gil is wandering alone on a comparatively dry backstreet when, Voila! (as we say in pigeon French) a classic car pulls up and whisks him away to — where else? — the Cocteau party.
Gil’s ride into the past becomes a nightly event. Sometimes he ends up at Gertrude Stein’s, with Alice B. Toklas (of brownie fame) and Picasso. Or at a café with Man Ray and Luis Bunuel (there’s a wonderful “The Discreet Life of the Bourgeoisie joke).
And then there’s this girl. This woman. This enchantress. She’s Adriana (Oscar-winner Marion Cotillard). And when Gil first meets her, she’s Picasso’s mistress.
Ah, but things can change. That’s part of the magic of Paris.
So, Gil keeps slip-siding in time, falling for Adriana, getting Stein to read his unpublished novel, avoiding Hemingway’s constant invitation: “Anybody wanna fight?”
The key element is the nature of nostalgia. Gil wishes for the slower, more cultivated life of the 1920s; Adriana longs for the slower, more cultivated life of The Belle Époque.
If comedy is said to be tragedy, plus time, is nostalgia denial, plus time? If we can’t live in the present, where can we live?
The newest in a long line of Allen surrogates on film, Owen may be the best, despite his being the most removed physically from the filmmaker’s familiar persona. He’s transformed himself from a “Wedding Crashers” hunk into someone uncomfortable in his own skin. It’s not really an impersonation — as Kenneth Branagh and John Cusack attempted. It’s more like an incarnation.
“Midnight in Paris” is definitely post-mid ‘90s Allen. Which is to say, it’s not on a par with such masterworks as “Manhattan,” “Bananas,” “Annie Hall” or “Hannah and her Sisters.” But, ‘twill serve. It’s low-key brilliant, like “Match Point” or “Vicky Christina Barcelona.”
Sometimes, the name-dropping gets tedious; how much can you listen to an audience muttering in self-congratulation because, yes, that’s Salvador Dali (Adrien Brody), just like they thought. About the only non-celebrity Gil meets is Adriana…and she has her own reason for being.
Overall, “Midnight in Paris” is so d’lightful, so d’lovely, you’re liable to forgive it anything. If you weren’t in love with Paris before, prepare to be seduced.
A final note: how accessible — as we like to say of movies without numbers behind their titles — is “Midnight in Paris?” Well, it’s opening wide, Hollywood-eese — so you can see it at your local multiplex.
Now that’s a vote of confidence from folks who aren’t very confident about anyone who isn’t bi-coastal.