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I’m still making my way through this year’s Oscar nominees, so here’s my belated take on Midnight in Paris. Originally, I thought Midnight in Paris was just going to be another in a string of rom-coms, an excuse to reunite Owen Wilson and Rachel McAdams and the quirky chemistry we saw in Wedding Crashers. When I saw additional previews, I saw that perhaps it was more intellectual than I originally expected, since Owen Wilson’s character visits the past to hang out with the likes of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Pablo Picasso. When I learned it was a Woody Allen film, I knew it had to have some offbeat moments and unexpected twists, and once it landed on the Best Picture nominee list, I decided it was worth checking out.

Owen Wilson plays Gil, a Hollywood screenwriter and frustrated novelist. He admits he’s a hack writer, but he hasn’t given up on his dream to write a great novel. He’s engaged to Inez, played by a more uptight Rachel McAdams than we’re used to seeing lately, although she seems to relish the chance to play someone more tightly wound. The first scene of this movie is the only one in which the two appear to have any chemistry or love between them, which surprised me because I had originally envisioned their love story playing a larger part in the movie. Their characters are spending some time in Paris with Inez’s parents, as her father is setting up a business venture there. Gil has grand illusions of moving to Paris one day, a dream which Inez brushes off as nonsensical. Gil is enamored with the city, not just because of its beauty, but also because it was once the congregating point of his literary idols during the artistic salons of the 1920s. He vocalizes early on that he would love to move to Paris to adopt the romantic and bohemian lifestyle of a starving artist, despite the fact that he and his fiance are portrayed as quite well-off. His longing for the 1920s–a time he deems literature’s golden age–pours into even his novel he wants to perfect. The main character in his novel owns a nostalgia shop, and while this is pretty much all we learn about the novel’s protagonist, it reflects on Gil’s frustrations with his current life as well.

While dining in a glitzy bistro, Gil and Inez run into an old friend of Inez’s from her college days, a know-it-all played with understated brilliance by Michael Sheen. Soon, he and his wife are taking the couple on museum tours and lecturing them on French art history, even to the point of arguing about Rodin with one of the docents. Gil is fed up at this point, and after an evening of drinking, he decides to take a lonely midnight stroll. He ends up on a picturesque cobbled street before he stops to rest on an equally picturesque cobbled step. As the clock strikes midnight, a black cab pulls up and stops at the  stoop where he sits. The passengers call to him in French to join them; he’s slightly reticent at first, but he’s also a bit drunk, so he enters the cab to find himself with a group of Parisians–but they’re dressed in the garb reminiscent of his favorite era–the 1920s. He’s drunk and caught up in the moment, so he doesn’t seem to notice that anything is off until the group ends up at a party, and he winds up in a conversation with a woman named Zelda (Alison Pill), who then introduces Gil to her husband, Scott (Tom Hiddleston). Gil thinks it must be a coincidence that this couple shares the names of Zelda Fitzgerald and one of his literary idols, F. Scott Fitzgerald, but then he realizes that Cole Porter (Yves Heck) is playing the piano at the party, and when he meets a young, outspoken Ernest Hemingway (Corey Stoll), he accepts that somehow he has been transported back to his dream era. Thrilled with his great luck, he asks Hemingway to read the draft of Gil’s novel and offer him suggestions. Hemingway refuses, but promises to show the work to Gertrude Stein. When Gil leaves the cafe to retrieve his novel from his hotel, he finds that he has returned to the present day. He is mystified but mostly excited about the fact that he has had the chance to meet some of the writers he most wishes to emulate and experience firsthand the time period he loves.

When he tries to tell Inez his adventures, she brushes him off and informs him of her plans to spend her time touring France with her professor friend and his wife. Gil is still confused by his time travel, but doesn’t spend much time dwelling on the logistics of how it actually happened. Instead, he grabs his manuscript and heads back to the cobbled steps hoping that the cab will arrive once again. Sure enough, the black cab pulls up, and he is off to visit Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates), who happens to be critiquing Picasso’s (Marcial Di Fonzo Bo) work as he paints in her study. Gil is thrilled to meet two more artistic greats, but he is somewhat distracted by the meeting because also present in the study is Picasso’s lover, Adriana (Marion Cotillard). Gil is enthralled with her, and it isn’t long before he sees what is lacking in his own engagement while he finds fulfillment in his escape to what he envisions as the idyllic time period.

In a quick running time (94 minutes), Allen scooped up an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay in a script that features interesting characters and cameos; my favorite was Adrien Brody as Salvador Dali. Everyone seems to be having a good time in this movie; no time is spent dwelling on the hows and whys of Gil’s travels, just on how fun and absurd and thrilling it would be to come face to face with one’s idols and a past era. Of course, the literary and artistic allusions are key in this movie, and I think people unfamiliar with the references won’t enjoy it as much as those who do. Still, the film’s not pretentious in the way that Michael Sheen’s character is; it’s clever and believable and discusses in light terms what it means to long for another time. Gil is shocked when he learns that one of the characters he meets in the 1920s longs instead for the gay 1890s, as that is what she envisions as the perfect time period. The script and movie are not life-altering or radical in their message, but they bring about an interesting perspective and show Gil’s own path to discovering what he needs to make him happy in the present. My one complaint is that Allen spells out Gil’s epiphany in a monologue that, while well-written, takes too much time to spell out for the audience what Gil is thinking. I think if Allen had avoided tying up his script with a neat little bow and instead allowed the audience to draw their own conclusions and interpretations, I would have respected the film even more. Still, it’s a fun film with a different take on time travel and it’s a delight to see the actors having such a good time in the film.

My rating: Good (3 of 4 stars)

Quick facts: Midnight in Paris, 2011; PG-13 rating, with a running time of 94 minutes; Sony Pictures Classics

Sources: Photo insert: http://www.eonline.com/news/movie_reviews/movie_review_midnight_in_paris_fun/242947

Flim info: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1605783/

http://www.sonyclassics.com/midnightinparis/

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