Woody Allen’s Midnight In Paris will make as much money as Annie Hall and restore him to the affections, perhaps, of the many women who chose to abhor him for most of this millennium, foolishly. It is literate, funny and sexy and mixes the appeal of his two great New Yorker short stories, The Whore of Mensa and The Hugelmass Experiment, with the daft adolescent magical realism of Play It Again, Sam and The Purple Rose of Cairo.
So, then: Gil, a disconsolate Hollywood hack obsessed with Scott and Zelda and Ernest and Salvador and Pablo’s romantic Paris of the 1920s, is on a pre-honeymoon trip there with his fiancee Inez and her vulgar rich parents John and Helen and would like to stay there, really, live in a garret and finish his first novel and find out how good a writer he really is. But she — and they — won’t let him. He makes big money doing movie rewrites, they reason, and she has her eye on a big house in Malibu. He is further unsettled by Paul, a haughty, bearded former college crush of hers, who lectures now at the Sorbonne, and loftily guides them round Versailles and some punishing art galleries he dominates with his erudition. And then, one night, furthermore, he takes Inez dancing.
Alone, outclassed, abashed and feeling semi-cuckolded, Gil becomes drunk and maudlin and lost on a wet cobbled street, and a clock strikes midnight, and a vintage car appears in moonlight, and some young revellers urge him into it. Soon he is at a party with Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Cole Porter, Stravinsky and other famed figures long dead but ardent and articulate who prove interested in discussing his novel with him. They then kick on to a smoke-filled cafe where Ernest Hemingway, big, young, baleful, leonine, intolerant of Zelda and keen to punch someone, sneeringly refuses to read Gil’s novel but says he will take it to Gertrude Stein. Gil stumbles back to the hotel and gets it but by the time he has returned the twenties cafe, alas, has become a modern laundromat.
Was it all a dream? He takes Inez back to same spot next night, and they wait, and she eventually walks off, believing he has a brain tumour. And then, at midnight precisely, the same car arrives, containing Hemingway, who is keen to urge on his passenger the noble experience of death in battle, and at Gertrude Stein’s he is introduced not just to Picasso but his shy, alluring mistress Adriana, whom Hemingway covets and Gil falls copiously, madly in love with; and she, oh God, with him.
This is the ideal girl. The mistress successively of Miro, Degas and Picasso, she studied design with Coco Chanel and yearns for the Belle Epoque of the 1880s, finding the Jazz Age and the Lost Generation and Hemingway’s Moveable Feast a weary, stale, flat and unprofitable disappointment and waste of youth. Ah, but to be there in the Moulin Rouge in the Belle Epoque with Toulouse-Lautrec and Gauguin, she avers, that is the place to have been. And soon, sure enough …
You get the idea. Woody fiddles with history a bit, making Ernest a seasoned rhino hunter already in 1922 when he was nothing of the sort, and airbrushing his wife Hadley and baby Bumby out of what seems now a riotous brawling bachelorhood of smashed glasses and groped barmaids without end, and in a matter of a few days packing Ernest and Adriana off to Kenya to hunt lion, break up and come back bruised by lust, mosquitoes and artistic differences.
But the casting and the set design is so engulfingly good one does not niggle too much. Corey Stoll is exactly as Hemingway must have been, bellicose, feral, ardent, envious and just a half-Pernod off crazy. Tom Hiddleston gives us a cautious, tolerant, not-too-champagne-sodden Scott and Alison Pill a tiny, wide-eyed, bullfighter-fucking teenage maddie who likes now and then to suicide in the Seine — just to round off the evening, and attract Scott’s attention away from whatever rich widow he is lately flirting with. And Adrien Brody’s effusive bellowing Dali and Adrien de Van’s dour Bunuel (to whom Gil vainly tries to sell the plot of The Exterminating Angel amid the auteur’s growing puzzlement: whay dern’t they jerst leave the rerm?) seem spot on, as do Yves Heck’s Cole Porter, David Lowe’s T.S. Eliot, Vincent Menjou Corles’ tiny goose-like Toulouse-Lautrec, and — especially — Kathy Bates’s plump unselfish imposing Gertrude Stein. This is a woman whose taste you do not cross, and whose kindness is unending.
Cotillard’s Adriana, however, tests Gil’s conscience like no first novel or hurtling Pamplona bull. Radiant, knowing, soft, sympathetic, bruisable and lovely as five Renoirs all at once, she is shocked to learn that he has nert terld her he is engarzhed and like Pablo and Miro plans to treat her as a shuckable sexual convenience and abandon her, like the others. He protests that he does not plan this, he loves her, but there is this minor problem of a wedding night he must get to in 2011 that will not go away; not for ninety years yet at any rate. A scene where they walk at night by the lamplit Seine and accordions play ‘Plaisir d’Amour’ through caressing mist is as achingly romantic and wrenchingly sad as anything in An American In Paris or Jules et Jim.
What is Gil to do?
He will not best the gorgeous, ferocious Inez or her bellowing progenitors without the Eighth Army and General Patton at his back. Nor will he ward off the threat of the pompous Paul with whom, Hemingway informs him, from a close reading of the latest draft of his novel, Inez is having an affair. Accused of it, she denies it formidably. It must be true, he shouts, Hemingway read it between the lines! John meanwhile has hired Duluc, a sly French private detective, who follows Gil at midnight into the past and falls down like Clouzout between some centuries.
You get the idea. President Sarkozy’s flighty wife Carla Bruni is very fine as a Museum Guide with green confronting eyes who, in the present millennium, tempts him almost as much as Lea Seydoux as Gabrielle, a beautiful calm warm girl in jeans in a music shop who is fond, like him, of Cole Porter ‘because he writes so much about love, and Paris’. And his fiancee, Inez, magnificently fuelled and fired by the drop-dead Rachel McAdams, determined, spoiled and gorgeous beyond enduring, in what may be the film’s best performance, and John and Helen, blazing, acquisitive, self-righteous in-laws from Hell but superbly individuated — if that word exists — by Kurt Fuller and Mimi Kennedy (lately seen with bleeding teeth under kleenex in In The Loop) and Michael Sheen in a beard as the stiff adulterous pedant Paul, fill out a cast as fine as any in world cinema that, in only 89 minutes after the Paris montage that under Coltrane’s yearning clarinet starts the film, brings in the story’s long sweet amorous revenges.
Only Owen Wilson as Gil disappoints, just a little. Nervous tics and stumbling one-liners the young Woody Allen would have made work seem over-naive sometimes in his mouth and his curious nasal cadences, and his character belongs more to the 1950s than this era of meltdown, bailout and Inglorious Basterds, when history is not just adjusted but blown to smithereens.
But it is Woody’s film for the ages, and his late box office redemption in this, his seventy-fifth year of implacable quest for the joke that brings down the house and sets, like Yorick, the table on a roar. His output now is rivalled only by Lumet’s and his ratio of laughs attained to laughs attempted by only The Simpsons’ team, who are numbered, I guess, in their hundreds.
He has made it home to Parnassus from silly beginnings. And he should be acclaimed.