It turns out that Owen Wilson, playing the last herringbone-jacketed screenwriter in Hollywood, wasn’t the only one who wanted to go back in time to meet the great expatriate writers and artists of the 1920s. This weekend, Midnight in Paris, Woody Allen’s time-machine-of-high-culchah trifle, crossed the line to become the filmmaker’s all-time biggest hit, surpassing the $40.1 million mark set 25 years ago by Hannah and Her Sisters. That movie made its money in two separate releases one year apart, so perhaps Allen’s real erstwhile biggest hit should be considered Manhattan. And, of course, if you factor in inflation, Midnight in Paris wouldn’t be number one by a long shot. That said, movie-land accountants don’t tend to do a lot of adjusting for inflation (they look at the raw numbers), and so the inescapable fact is that the top of Allen’s box-office track record will now look like this:
1. Midnight in Paris ($41.8 million, probably heading toward $50 million)
2. Hannah and Her Sisters ($40.1 million)
3. Manhattan ($39.9 million)
4. Annie Hall ($38.2 million)
Quick, can you say: “One of these things just doesn’t belong here?”
I’m never one to begrudge anyone a hit, and certainly not Woody Allen, who has always found a way to make a movie a year (forget the couch – making movies is his therapy), though not, in recent years, without jumping through a few hoops. His movies, when viewed next to the clattering roller-coasters of Hollywood, are almost legendarily “small,” which is why he has been forced to go to Europe for financing, and to set most of his recent pictures there, a trend that began with Match Point (2005), the nimble, devious, midnight-dark, Woody-meets-Hitchcock thriller that, to me, should have become his new all-time biggest hit.
Creatively, it’s been a good run for him, even if the novelty of Allen’s Euro-movies, at least in my eyes, has begun to wear off. To get that novelty back, here’s a suggestion: He should now set a comedy in Berlin, starring Ryan Gosling as a visiting American professor of Holocaust Studies torn between his devoted French Jewish girlfriend, played by Mélanie Laurent, and the 18-year-old goth German temptress, played by Emma Stone with a Marlene Dietrich accent, who turns out to be the great-granddaughter of a member of the SS. Talk about having your Nazi jokes, love-vs.-lust triangle, and moral ambiguity at the same time.
But I digress. Up until now, the movies that crossed over from Woody Allen’s core audience to become his major hits were also his greatest films. (That’s true even if you go back to his Early, Funny Films. The cathartically hilarious Borscht Belt-surrealist comedies that planted Allen on the cultural map were crowd-pleasers that raked in substantial amounts of money, from Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex, at $18 million, to Love and Death, at $20 million.) I’m well aware that Midnight in Paris is a movie that a lot of people seem to love, or at least like a lot. But to me it’s a minor shock that this movie, with its one-note flippancy and its Great Artist caricatures who seem to have walked in out of an old Saturday Night Live sketch, has gotten such a hold on audiences. The movie may on some level be charming, and it’s got that Paris-in-the-rain, summer-travelogue-from-heaven factor, but, I’m sorry, its slightly daffy la vie de bohème nostalgia is so, so thin. Which is why its all-time-biggest-hit status for Woody looms as quite a paradox in his career.
All you have to do is to say the titles of the three movies in Woody’s neurotic-romantic New York trilogy – Annie Hall, Manhattan, Hannah and Her Sisters – to conjure a spirit of filmmaking that, in addition to being immortally funny, is richly observant and psychological and dramatic. Those movies may have come out a long time ago, but they have never left us, and it was largely because of them that the phrase “Woody Allen movie” came to symbolize something so special. They were some of the most soulful comedies ever made.
Over time, however, the phrase “Woody Allen movie” has undergone a chemical change. For decades, Allen griped about what he saw as the clanking superficiality of contemporary Hollywood movies. His inspiration always came from somewhere else – from the art-house giants (Bergman, Fellini) he famously revered, or from the winsome sublimity of the silent clowns. Yet I would argue that the Hollywood brand of moviemaking that Woody Allen has always looked askance at is defined, more than anything, by its psychological thinness. And in that light, Midnight in Paris, while it certainly has the pleading earnest hero, the opening credits with the white-on-black Windsor EF-Elongated lettering, and the name-dropping cultural-studies chitchat, is less a classic “Woody Allen movie” than a comedy that masquerades as highbrow while delivering high concept. It’s the rare Woody Allen movie that’s not so much great enough to be a smash as slender-and-lite enough to be a smash.
So what did you think of Midnight in Paris? Are you surprised that it’s such a big hit? Do you think it deserves to be Allen’s new number one?
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Speaking of smashed records, Bridesmaids, as I cautiously predicted here a month and a half ago, has crossed the line to become the biggest hit ever produced by Judd Apatow. That, too, is a pretty big paradox, considering that the Apatow factory, from the moment that it was placed on the map with the one-two punch of The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up, has been devoted, in its very molecules, to the horny, slobby, selfish, arrested, and ultimately romantic worldview of contemporary men-who-are-overgrown-boys. So far, the message that Hollywood seems to have taken from the incredible success of Bridesmaids is a predictably reductive one, something along the lines of: Hey, look! Raunchy comedies for women with awesome gross-out scenes in the middle of them can be big box office too!! The message that Hollywood should be taking is: A comedy that’s raunchy and fearless, and also brilliantly written and shrewdly honest about what’s really going on in women’s lives, may actually connect with the fabled non-teenage audience (remember them?). It’s a message that the Woody Allen of Annie Hall would have appreciated.
Follow Owen on Twitter: @OwenGleiberman