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Midnight in Paris

“Midnight in Paris” is a movie for English majors, art lovers, and all around romantics, and since I am all three, I can’t really say how it would play for someone who is none of them.  Does everyone imagine what it would like to be alive in a different era?  Someone told me as recently as last night that I looked like I should’ve been born seventy-five years ago.  I never know what to do when people say that, but after watching “Midnight in Paris,” it’s good to know I’m not alone.

Owen Wilson plays the Woody Allen character here; there always is one in a Woody Allen movie, though it’s been twenty years since Allen played the character himself.  Saying he’s the Woody Allen character means he’s nervous, he talks a lot, he doesn’t have much self-confidence, but he’s also a hopeless romantic, a sweet, lovable guy, and capable of great verbal humor as well as insight.  Wilson is in Paris with his fiancé, Rachel McAdams, who is shopping for their upcoming wedding. Her parents are in town, too. Wilson is a screenwriter in Hollywood, and has done pretty well for himself, and his money is apparently the only thing McAdams likes about him.  (This, to me, is a problem with a lot of Allen’s romantic comedies; they pair two people together who absolutely should never be together.  But it’s forgivable, as this is comedy and not drama; it’s easy to see where it’s going, and fun when it gets there.) She’s impatient, she treats him with utter contempt, doesn’t listen to him, doesn’t care what he thinks or wants, and generally wishes he would act like a completely different person.  The person she wishes he would act like is Michael Sheen, an insufferable blowhard who knows everything about everything in Paris, from the wine to the paintings to the landscapes.  He’s the kind of person who argues with tour guides, and we’re supposed to hate him and we do.

Frustrated and alienated from his fiancé, her parents, and the man she wishes he would be, Wilson takes to wandering around the streets of Paris at night, and then something magical happens. He’s transported back to the Jazz Age, when Ernest Hemingway, Pablo Picasso, the Fitzgeralds and others all dined, partied, and slept together in Paris.

Now this is the part where being a literature & art geek comes in handy.  I suppose most people will recognize Hemingway and Picasso, but the film is loaded with famous artists flitting across the screen; Luis Bunuel, Gertrude Stein and T.S. Eliot may be less recognizable and/or completely missed by some.  I’m not saying this be uppity or show off how much I know, but to say that if you don’t have a passing knowledge of these folks, you may feel lost and frustrated for most of the rest of the movie.  Allen doesn’t slow down to explain who these people are, how they relate to each other, or what they’re famous for; if you don’t know, you won’t learn it here.  But if you do know, there’s a depth and richness to the inside jokes that make “Midnight in Paris” a really fun trip into the past.

Wilson spends more and more time in the magical/fictional past and less and less time with this fiancé, and who can blame him?  He meets and converses with interesting people (though if Ernest Hemingway was in real life as blunt and preachy as he is in this movie, he must’ve been a real been a terrible bore) and he falls in love.  But then something unusual happens, and the point of the whole thing is gently delivered.

I enjoyed “Midnight in Paris;” it’s frothy and sweet, with a sad, wise current running underneath both the silly romantic comedy elements and the fun trip into nostalgia.  It might not be everyone’s flavor, so I can imagine some getting bored with it. But it’s got such a sweetness, such a romance about it, I can hardly imagine anyone actively disliking it.

Nostalgia is the flavor of the day in Hollywood, with “The Artist” taking the big prize by pretending to be from a different era.  Leave it to Woody Allen to poke a hole in the bubble; “Midnight in Paris” reminds us that the grass always looks greener twenty years ago. It doesn’t matter what age you are lucky enough to live in, the romance of a past era will always be there to draw you out of the present and into the land of daydreams.  It’s the people who live right now who make this age something worth daydreaming about later.

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