Well here’s a pleasant surprise: a good Woody Allen movie. I contextualised my position on Woody in my review in March of You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger, which may well be his worst ever film. You can read that again here, if you want to understand my disappointment in full. Needless to say, like many others, I used to love him, and fell out of love with him when he started to make films outside of New York. It’s like the old Jewish joke he tells in Annie Hall: the food here is terrible … and such small portions! As a rule, Woody Allen films are now terrible … and they arrive at a rate of sometimes two a year!
Well, I’m relieved and delighted to report that the chatter is true: Midnight In Paris is a return to form. Not a fully fledged return, but a wander in the right direction. There are three things that make it work:
1) Owen Wilson. All my all-time favourite Allen films have Woody in them, in the lead, playing the screen version of himself. However, as he’s aged past the point where he can any long “get the girl” without the rest of us squirming and mopping our brows, he’s had to try out a few surrogates. John Cusack was good, Kenneth Branagh less so, Josh Brolin and even Larry David a disaster. But in Owen Wilson, he’s found himself. Here, Wilson plays a writer (of course, which other profession is Woody interested in?) who becomes inspired to write his novel on a visit to Paris. He’s clearly in a toxic relationship with Rachel McAdams, whose parents are overbearing, Europhobic Republicans, and whose attraction to Michael Sheen’s pompous pseud marks her out as a shallow waste of space. But beccause Wilson plays it puppydog innocent and eager to please you root for him without thinking, hey, he’s asking for it. There’s something about Wilson’s round, imperfect face and his shaggy mop that brings you onside from the first glimpse. If Woody decided to always cast Wilson from now on, I’d be more than happy.
2) The idea. Yes, it’s a moderately-high-concept Woody Allen film. Because the story involves Wilson going back in time to Paris in the 1920s when the clock strikes midnight, and much of its humour revolves around the literary, musical and artistic icons he bumps into in the sort of cafes and salons that still exist in modern-day Paris, Woody gets to indulge his own love of a prelapsarian golden age when American greats like Hemingway, Porter and Fitzgerald rubbed shoulders with Europeans like Picasso, Dali and Bunuel. Woody has always had a symbiotic relationship with Europe, and Midnight In Paris sort of encapsulates that mutual admiration, but in a genuinely funny conceit. So it’s not an all-out period piece like Sweet And Lowdown, Bullets Over Broadway or The Purple Rose Of Cairo, but it hints at all three, and that’s a good thing.
3) It’s not set in London. As proud as we are to have him in our great capital, Woody Allen does not understand the way people speak here, and as a result, he’s made his worst films here: Match Point, Cassandra’s Dream and Tall Dark Stranger. And maybe it’s more irksome when an artist idealises a place you actually know inside out? (He does it to Paris, naturally, especially in Midnight‘s opening montage, but then again, he once did the same for Manhattan and he didn’t even have the excuse of being a tourist!) Either way, any city that tempts him away from London is good news.
More context for my enjoyment of Midnight In Paris: I’ve seen an awful lot of violent films of late. Good and powerful films, but 18 certificate brutal. I was so looking forward to turning up to the Curzon and seeing a 12A certificate that would be guaranteed free of violence. Especially impact-based violence. The fact that it was a funny film, and I mean a film that made me laugh out loud often – not least when Wilson meets Dali (a show-stealing Adrien Brody cameo), Bunuel and Man Ray and explains his time-travelling conundrum and they find it perfectly commonplace (“Of course, but you’re surrealists“) – meant that it was just the tonic. This is not a revolutionary piece of work. It is not “important” in that sense of the word. But it was important to me yesterday afternoon. It provided cultural and comic relief. It was lovely to be sat in a pleasant arthouse of an afternoon and sense that others were getting the gags about Hemingway and Zelda Fitzgerald and Picasso and Gertrude Stein and Gaugin … frankly, most Woody Allen fans would. But Woody Allen fans are akin to those who support a local football team who used to be in the Premiership and now struggle on a regular basis to find their old form, and yet, you support them doggedly anyway, and take no pleasure in their downfall.
In contrast, last night I caught up with the opening episode of Romanzo Criminale, which represents Sky Arts getting into the BBC4 game by importing a subtitled drama series, this time from Italy. It’s set in Rome, in the past – the 1970s – and presents anything but a tourist’s-eye view of the city. A brilliant antidote, once again. I’ll write about it, and FX’s forthcoming French import Braquo, soon.