In the twenty-four years since my favorite Woody Allen film was released (Radio Days), it's been a mixed bag for Woody. There have been a few pleasant comedies (Manhattan Murder Mystery, Bullets Over Broadway), flawed, yet penetrating films (Crimes And Misdemeanors, Husbands And Wives), failed attempts at something new (Everyone Says I Love You, Match Point..a film I loathe), inconsequential fluff (Vicky Christina Barcelona), and flat-out pieces of shit (Small Time Crooks, Hollywood Ending). Even flashes of extreme unpleasantness (Celebrity, Deconstructing Harry), yet the unpleasantness in Harry is oddly intriguing. I cannot tell you the sense of relief and exhilaration I had while watching this, realizing things were working, then realizing Allen had finally got it right after all these years.
This stars Owen Wilson as a hack screenwriter and wanna-be novelist who travels to Paris with his shallow fiancee and his "ugly American" future in-laws. Having not been there since his college days, the city makes him remember the person he was then, and how unfulfilling his life is now. One night he drunkenly stumbles back to his hotel and has an encounter with Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. Soon he is returning to the same mystery spot every night where he is transported back to the Paris of the 1920s and rubbing elbows with long-dead giants of literature and art.
The broadly-sketched portrayals of Ernest Hemingway, Salvador Dali, Gertrude Stein, Luis Bunuel, etc. are delicious. And the evocation of the time period is dead-on...or a romanticized version of it, which is intentional and exactly what we, the audience, wants. Before seeing this, Allen's casting of Wilson in the lead was a head-scratcher, I've never liked him. However, now I think it was a very smart choice. Casting someone so different from Allen means there was no chance of getting a half-assed impression of Woody, something that often occurs with male leads acting as his stand-in (particularly Kenneth Branaugh in Celebrity). This film touches on an important point: that everyone has romantic notions of the past (including myself) and in doing so miss the beauty of the present. At one point, a character in this says: "The golden age is now." A statement so life-affirming it can make your head spin. Midnight In Paris knocks Manhattan out of my top-five favorite Woody Allen films. A marvelous, warm, and nearly flawless movie. His best in twenty-four years.