Having sampled London and Barcelona in recent films, Woody Allen continues his grand tour of European cities with Midnight in Paris, an ingratiating, tourist-oriented exercise in nostalgia for a city that doesn’t exist. One could argue that Allen’s beloved New York City doesn’t exist either — that his Manhattan is a state of mind and an exclusive zip code populated by Allen-esque characters less likely to visit Queens than Qatar. This Paris, though, really exists solely in the mind, reachable each night only at the stroke of 12.
That’s when Gil (Owen Wilson, in a slower-speed version of the Woody role) slips into a twilight zone. He’s a Hollywood screenwriter on a pre-wedding Parisian jaunt with his fiancée, Inez (Rachel McAdams, miscast as a status-conscious shrew), and when the clock towers go gong, he comes face-to-face with great France-based writers and artists of an earlier golden era. Suddenly, this West Coast hack is a serious aspiring novelist on a first-name basis with Ernest Hemingway, Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, Pablo Picasso, and Salvador Dali. Gil even finds a beautiful muse/mistress (Marion Cotillard) who treats him with the kind of sultry adoration she only bestows on geniuses.
Allen has fun in his imaginary French capital, turning his star-studded cast loose to interpret their characters as they wish. Some swim, others flounder. (Kathy Bates and Adrien Brody bite into their roles as Stein and Dali; Carla Bruni, the wife of French president Nicolas Sarkozy, is less assured as a modern-day tour guide.)
But even as Allen goes further than he’s ever dared toward acknowledging his weakness for nostalgia, the movie still confuses easy travelogue photography — pretty pics of France for distractible Americans — with dynamic filmmaking. ”We’ll always have Paris,” the director suggests. Oui, so long as we think of Paris as a joke about Scott and Zelda — and a beauty shot of the Eiffel Tower. B