by Jeff Beck, Guest Film Critic
Midnight in Paris (2011)
Woody Allen returns to direct his 41st film with “Midnight in Paris,” the film that opened the Cannes Film Festival this year. Allen has been through a bit of a rough patch with his last two films, “Whatever Works” and “You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger,” both of which just didn’t work very well. However, I’m glad to report that he’s returned to his old self with this sweet, charming, and magical story that comes off as strange even for Allen.

Gil (Owen Wilson) and Inez (Rachel McAdams) are a couple visiting Paris while preparing for their wedding. Gil is a screenwriter who is hoping to become a novelist and is currently in the middle of writing a book. Besides spending time with Inez’s parents, the couple also spends time with some friends of theirs, Paul (Michael Sheen) and Carol (Nina Arianda), that they just happen to run into.

Gil becomes increasingly annoyed at Paul’s seemingly endless intellect on topics from wine to art, so one night, instead of going dancing with Inez, Paul, and Carol, Gil decides to take a stroll through Paris. After getting lost, Gil finds himself sitting on some steps at the stroke of midnight. Suddenly, an old fashion car comes driving up, filled with partying occupants who urge him to join them. Gil gets into the car and is whisked away to a party where he meets Zelda (Alison Pill) and Scott Fitzgerald (Tom Hiddleston).

Gil is understandably confused by meeting them, and at finding a man who looks exactly like Cole Porter playing tunes on the piano, but he eventually realizes that he has somehow gone back to Paris as it was in the 1920s where he is able to interact with important artistic figures of the time including Ernest Hemingway (Corey Stoll) and Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates). The film follows Gil on this magical journey as he learns things about his writing and himself from these various icons of literature and other art forms.

You’ve heard of people who like to drop big names, well Allen’s written a film that loves to drop big names, but that’s where a lot of the film’s charm and comedy comes from. You never know who’s going to show up next in this artistic grab bag of personalities. One second Gil is having a friendly chat with the Fitzgeralds (with Scott referring to Gil as “old sport” of course), a few minutes later he’s having discussions with Hemingway, Stein, and Pablo Picasso.

I suppose having a knowledge of some of the figures who appear does help one’s enjoyment of the film. There are certainly names thrown about that will not be well known to everyone. For example, the party that Gil attends the first night of his journey is one that’s being held in honor of Jean Cocteau (a famous French filmmaker). This is merely a throwaway line, as well as another early hint that Gil has started his journey, that most people will not get.

Another scene that’s particularly amusing consists of a conversation between Gil and Luis Bunuel (another famous French filmmaker, well-known for his surrealistic work). Gil gives Bunuel an idea for a movie where guests at a dinner party are unable to leave the room. Fans of Bunuel will automatically understand the film being referenced (“The Exterminating Angel”) and will get the joke being implied from his lack of understanding the idea. However, not knowing of it should not hurt your enjoyment of the scene as the idea Gil presents sounds incredibly absurd and comical anyway.

The blend of all of these artistic personalities is one of the film’s strongest elements. Hemingway and Stein have some fascinating insights on writing, while one surrealistic scene features Salvador Dali (Adrien Brody) spewing out bizarre comments about rhinoceroses (with Bunuel being close by of course). This adds to the films magic and gives you the feeling of actually being there in that time and place, hearing it from the people themselves.

Owen Wilson gives a charming performance as Gil (the Woody Allen-ish character of the story). Gil is the kind of character that is unhappy with the way things are in the time he lives in, causing him to wish he could live in what he deems to be “The Golden Age,” Paris in the 1920s. Getting this chance to explore that period ends up helping him significantly, not only with his writing, but with his view of his everyday life. There’s even a journey within the journey that will help lead him to a profound conclusion on the latter topic.

“Midnight in Paris” represents a return to form for Woody Allen, who shows what a writer can do with a wild imagination and a good comprehension of artistic figures. The blend of charm, magic, wit, and characterization come together to make this an engaging and intellectually stimulating experience. This is a great film and one of the best of the year thus far. 3.5/4 stars.