After an artistic and commercial surge that lasted from 1969's 'Take the Money And Run' through 1987's 'Radio Days,' Woody Allen's creative powers began to noticeably flag in the late 1980s. His comic films seemed repetitive and were no longer very funny, his dramas were murky and superficial, his productions began to look shabby (1993's thread-worn 'Manhattan Murder Mystery' being a good example) and, where Allen once commanded the finest acting talent the industry had to offer, his films began to be populated with second- and third-tier performers.
The Mia Farrow/Soon-Yi Previn scandal, which broke in the early 1990s, further alienated the general public, and, with the commercial failure of his projects, Allen began having trouble finding financing for his films.
Still, when Allen, who had rarely made a film outside of New York City, decamped to London to make 2005's critically and commercially successful crime drama 'Match Point,' New Yorkers were aghast, since they appeared to be losing their city's greatest ambassador. But Allen went on to celebrate the city of London in the mediocre 'Scoop' (2006) and both the underrated drama 'Cassandra's Dream' and the equally underrated comedic 'You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger' (2007 and 2010, respectively).
In between, Allen stopped over in Barcelona to film the internationally acclaimed comedy 'Vicki Cristina Barcelona,' a film which, as 'Match Point' had done for London, did for the Spanish city what Allen had done for New York City decades ago in 1979's 'Manhattan,' still one of the jewels in the crown of his career.
How wonderful for Allen, and for movie-lovers everywhere, that Allen, at present in his 70s, has now done the same thing for the French capitol with 2011's 'Midnight in Paris,' which, among things, is the first authentically warm film Allen has ever made.
There have been moments of human warmth in earlier Allen films (the poignant conclusion of 'Manhattan,' some of the scenes between Cecilia and Tom Baxter in 1985's 'The Purple Rose of Cairo,' or those between Eliot and Lee, or Mickey and Holly in 1986's 'Hannah & Her Sisters'), but 'human warmth,' as such, has never been very high on the list of subjects Allen has chosen to explore, despite his obvious romanticism.
The literally magical 'Midnight in Paris' has a very simple plot, a fact which works in the film's favor throughout: Gil Pender (Owen Wilson), a successful Hollywood screenwriter who would actually prefer to be a successful novelist of literary merit, is visiting Paris with his beautiful but shrewish fiancé, Inez (Rachel McAdams), and her wealthy, conservative, and materialistic parents. Enchanted by his knowledge of Parisian history and the Parisian streets themselves, Gil makes excuses and breaks away from Inez and her entourage.
Unable to find his hotel as midnight approaches, the slightly drunken Gil is picked up by a mysterious vintage automobile of boisterous bon vivants; before long, he finds himself drinking, dancing and conversing with F. Scott and Zleda Fitzgerald, Cole Porter, Ernest Hemingway (Corey Stoll, who steals the film with a dynamic and subtle performance), Gertrude Stein (a not very believable Kathy Bates), Djuna Barnes, Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dali (a hilarious Adrien Brody), and other literary and artistic legends in the distant Paris of the 1920s, a 'dream period' in which Gil imagines life would have been full of meaning, beauty, purpose, and endless, but realizable, potential.
Finding himself cast adrift in the present again the following morning, Gil attempts to recreate and share his secret with Inez on the next evening, but vulgar and petulant Inez, bored with waiting, leaves before midnight, the magic hour in which the car appears to escort Gil into the past. In his nightly revels in 1920s Paris, Gil eventually falls in love with Picasso's mistress, Adrianna (a gently stunning Marion Cotillard), a woman who is as lovely in spirit as she is in person. Much to his surprise, however, Gil finds that Adrianna cares little for her own era and instead romanticizes turn of the century Paris---the Belle Époque.
Unable to explain his preoccupied mental state or his midnight wanderings to Inez or her family, Gil, who thinks Paris looks best in the rain, takes again to the daylight Parisian streets, where he encounters young antiques dealer Gabrielle (Léa Seydoux) and strikes up a promising acquaintanceship, though Adrianna and the 1920s continue to haunt and lure him on.
Stunningly photographed by Darius Khondji, 'Midnight in Paris' not only ends warmly and happily, but the film is full of life, dimension, and figurative color to a degree never attempted in an Allen film.
Though Inez and her family, as types, have appeared recently in other Allen films, they are in no way the focus of the film: they are present merely to show what Gil has to fully realize and reject before he can move on with his life in a truly satisfactory manner. The script makes some rather lowly and cumbersome digs at the Republican party and the Tea Party movement, but the remarks, which flow from Gil's mouth, feel so tacked on and superfluous that they are easy to overlook.
Warm in tone and color, beautiful to look at, wonderfully written and acted (Owen Wilson is by far the best 'Woody Allen stand-in' since John Cusack), and powerfully scored and edited, 'Midnight in Paris' stands alongside 'Love & Death' (1975), 'Annie Hall' (1977), 'Interiors' (1978), 'Manhattan,' 'Stardust Memories' (1980), the underrated 'A Midsummer's Night Sex Comedy' (1982), 'Broadway Danny Rose' (1984), 'The Purple Rose of Cairo,' 'Hannah & Her Sisters,' 'Bullets Over Broadway' (1994), 'Match Point,' and 'Vicki Cristina Barcelona' as one of Allen's most creatively successful, joyous, and visionary films.
More than midway through the film, Allen has Gertrude Stein telling Gil that the artist's job is to provide meaning in a meaningless world, something 'Midnight In Paris' itself does in poignant and touching fashion.