Born in the wrong time: Owen Wilson and Marion Cotillard in MIDNIGHT IN PARIS

Ever since he got his start with the dub-tastic farce WHAT’S UP TIGER LILY in 1966, Woody Allen has written and directed a new film ever single year with only one exception – he took two years to make ANNIE HALL. With that kind of turnaround it goes without saying that not every single film is going to be a keeper. Still, the man is on a 45-year spree. He’s not only prolific, he’s a New York institution, only lately having traveled overseas to make his last several films. So when I say that MIDNIGHT IN PARIS, his latest annual cinematic exercise, is great fun but probably not a great film, it’s with the deepest respect.

The story stars one of Woody Allen’s classically mismatched couples. Gil (Owen Wilson), a self-acknowledged Hollywood hack turned struggling writer is engaged to Inez (Rachel McAdams), who’s as attractive as she is shallow. The two are visiting Paris with Inez’s overbearing parents, who are more interested in shopping and dining in chandelier-clad four-stars every night than they are in taking in the city itself. It’s during one such dinner that they bump into Inez’s friend Paul, who’s in town to lecture at the Sorbonne. He insists upon taking them around to see the sights where he proceeds to flout his pedantry at every possible turn, even arguing with a tour guide played by Carla Bruni over a minor matter of Rodin’s love life.

Allen makes it blazingly, almost embarrassingly obvious that Inez and Gil aren’t right for each other. She scolds and shushes him in front her friends, belittles his naive but endearing obsession with Paris and mocks his attempts at novel writing. He waxes cheesily but charmingly poetic about the Paris of yesteryear, the Paris of Hemingway and the great expat writers of the 1920s while Inez rolls her eyes and does a mental quick inventory of her Hermes purses. None of these warning signs seem to faze Gil, who takes to late night strolling to escape his bride-to-be, her family and her friends, and the streets of Paris being the twisted labyrinth they are, he immediately gets lost.

But just as the clock strikes twelve a beautifully restored vintage Rolls Royce-style limousine pulls up to the curb and the revelers inside beckon him in with glasses of champagne. Owen obeys, and is quickly whisked away to what appears to be a flapper-era costume party where he’s immediately introduced to Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald. After a few more uncanny coincidences he realizes that he wasn’t picked up in a restored Rolls after all, but a brand new one that has somehow transported him to his fantasy world: 1920s Paris. There, he meets his literary idol Ernest Hemingway, who wastes no time in strutting his Hemingway-ness, speaking in long-winded dead pan about hunting, war and what it means to be a man. Gil is soon rubbing elbows with Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates), Pablo Picasso, Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dali, played to the heights of ego in a delightful and agile performance by Adrien Brody.

Gil’s nightly time travel may deal heavily in stereotypes – we only see these mighty figures of the art world as history has painted them, not as real people – but any lover of art and literature will have a ball geeking out over the live action portrayals of the 20th-century’s greatest hits. This plot turn is only made more amusing by the fact that it’s not given away in the trailer. Still, gushing over our literary forefathers only takes the film so far. Once the card has been played and Gil’s visits to the roaring ’20s become something of regular occurrence, we’re left not only with the living stereotypes of the past, but the ones that occupy the present as well. It’s disappointing enough that Inez and her entourage are barely half-realized, but Gil himself is too busy sneaking off to the past and recovering from the thrill of it the next day to ever reflect on the experience. We learn from Gertrude Stein that his novel may not be half bad – a dubious and offhanded aside that deserves more screen time – but Gil acts as little more than an observer, a lens through which the audience can access the past and see what fun Woody Allen had in recreating it. Though likable and sympathetic, Gil is just another one of Allen’s struggling writer types, but much less realized than Josh Brolin’s take on the role in Allen’s previous film, YOU WILL MEET A TALL DARK STRANGER. I doubt whether it was Allen’s intention to make this comment, but it’s certainly ironic that MIDNIGHT IN PARIS almost becomes the kind of film that Gil has turned to novel writing in order to escape, the films that audiences love but “serious” writers revile, those that are amusing, but forgettable. I say almost because even when he’s not brilliant, Woody Allen still makes films that are smart and fun and a pleasure to behold, and MIDNIGHT IN PARIS is nothing less than that.