Speaking of pseudointellectuals, I’ve never—not even at SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE—seen a movie with an audience more vigorously engaged in the signaling to everyone else that, yes, old sport, they got the reference, they’re very smart, they had THE EXTERMINATING ANGEL over for dinner the other night, and this spiderweb of nods to books they read in high school is the funniest thing since that blistering New Yorker piece about parents who don’t get their kids vaccinated. Needless to say, it’s all very Stuff White People Like, which you can tell by their secret handshake, pedantic laughing. The thing is, saying the name Gertrude Stein isn’t funny. It’s just a reference, and like X-MEN: FIRST CLASS winking at its characters’ well-established fates, MIDNIGHT IN PARIS mistakes allusion for comedy far too often. So some of the jokes and most of the non-jokes aren’t particularly funny, in spite of the incessant ovation, but it’s the special determination of Woody Allen that the seventh set-up for Michael Sheen to parade his expertise on some hovel of the humanities is lazier than the film around him yet the smash cut earns a laugh anyway.
Often it’s Allen’s directorial panache, not just the license with which he lets his characters bloviate, that gilds MIDNIGHT IN PARIS. Most evocatively is a sequence straight out of CERTIFIED COPY where Owen Wilson and his lover are talking, presumably about wishing they were born in the romanticized past, as we watch the couple cross a street, but no, that’s a different couple entirely, and here come Wilson and his paramour following in their footsteps. The only groanworthy bit is this farce involving misplaced jewelry that nobody quite pulls off except the brilliant caricaturist Mimi Kennedy (“It’s always the maid”), who should be in everything. Allen’s tracking shots are understated, the better to quietly undercut the blustery characters, and his stroll through Monet’s Water Lillies, not to mention the Monet montage of the opening credits—every establishing shot of Paris is deliciously colored to match a corresponding Impressionist painting—seduces us into Wilson’s world: who wouldn’t want to live in that beauty?
For all the creativity of youth, Hollywood’s wunderkinds aren’t nearly as imaginative as cinema’s elder statesmen—Allen, Oliveira, Resnais—and MIDNIGHT IN PARIS blithely walks into a twist more radical than Allen’s dexterous touch suggests. Describing great art as collaborative, it clarifies, unifies, and rejuvenates the film, and it probably does some things you won’t find in a moisturizer commercial, but as with the reference comedy, Allen leaves it at that, letting the fact of the twist, not the twist itself, give the film its heft. Wilson says early on that nostalgia is denial—though, speaking some more of pseudointellectuals, at no point is anyone in this film talking about nostalgia; they’re all talking about romanticizing the human past, not their own individual pasts—and then spends a film learning the lesson. It’s a thrilling diversion of inspiration and melancholy, but it never gets deeper than that opening thesis statement, and occasionally it gets more obvious. The superficiality reveals Allen’s sly parting shot, as he traces the thread of denial all the way back to blissful ignorance. Like pets responding to sounds, the shallow walk off loving their art without bothering to comprehend it, and MIDNIGHT IN PARIS manages a happy ending that’s as much magic as it is surrender.
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Brandon Nowalk writes about film and television for the Maroon Weekly in College Station, TX and at his blog But What She Said and recently joined Twitter @bnowalk. His favorite films beyond the usual suspects include Henry King’s The Gunfighter, Alain Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad, Orson Welles’ The Trial, Jan Nemec’s Diamonds of the Night, and David Lynch’s Inland Empire.