Like most Woody Allen movies, Midnight in Paris has a sort of moral thesis. You can see it coming miles away: a compassionate but unromantic warning about the pitfalls of idealizing the past. But as my brother pointed out to me when I was trying to articulate some of my frustrations with the film, Midnight is actually quite reluctant to accept its own moral. It pays lip service to the idea that such idealization can be isolating even as the movie itself looks backward with rosy, starstruck vision. The present is populated by staggeringly superficial, affected, monochromatic drones, while the past—specifically the expatriate community of 1920s Paris—glitters with brilliant, generous, passionate artists. Not only is that a bit flaky from a thematic perspective, it makes for a wildly uneven film, ricocheting between shrill, heavy-handed scenes and utterly charming scenes. The latter make Midnight in Paris worth seeing, but the former temper the pleasure of it.
In the inevitable Allen avatar role is Owen Wilson, who plays Gil, a self-proclaimed hack screenwriter whose trip to France has prompted him to rediscover his literary ambitions. His insufferable fiancée, Inez (Rachel McAdams), however, has no interest in marrying a potentially starving artist, especially one whose talent she disdains. While Inez tours the French countryside and enjoys the Parisian nightlife with her snooty academic friend Paul (Michael Sheen), Gil wanders dreamily down cobbled alleyways late into the night. At the stroke of midnight, he somehow journeys seamlessly back in time to the era of the Lost Generation: the writers and artists who found inspiration and community in 1920s Paris. Meeting his heroes is fantastic enough; meeting the luminous Adriana (Marion Cotillard), an artists’ muse, pulls Gil even deeper into the past.
The episodes in the 1920s are easily the most enchanting in the whole movie. Like Gil, we are dazzled by the parade of famous charismatic figures: Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald (Tom Hiddleston and Alison Pill), Ernest Hemingway (Corey Stoll), Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates), and Salvador Dalí (Adrien Brody), to name just a few. Even Allen seems to be having more fun in the 1920s. In those sequences, his screenplay is clever and lively, while his writing in the present—for Paul, Inez, and her family—is lazy and lifeless. (I mean, freedom fries? Seriously? That joke was always bad, even when it wasn’t nearly a decade past its sell-by date.) Poor McAdams, usually so winning, is saddled with an irredeemably tedious, spiteful character as well as a couple of scenes that reach halfheartedly for farce but are far too insipid and sluggish to achieve it.
Back in time, though, the humor and energy levels pick up considerably. With only a few lines, Hiddleston and Pill poignantly portray the Fitzgeralds’ loving but wildly dysfunctional relationship. Allen provides Stoll with hilariously Hemingway-esque dialogue, all blunt statements and spare syntax, marked by a fixation on the relationship between love and death and an obvious obsession with bullfighting. Bates’s Stein is underused but a commanding presence whenever she’s on screen, and Brody makes a perfectly loopy Dalí. In fact, the scene in which Gil meets him and fellow surrealists Man Ray and Luis Buñuel, all of whom fail to see what’s so strange about the twenty-first-century man’s time-tripping exploits, might be my favorite in the whole film—and not just because I was smugly pleased with myself for picking up the allusion to Buñuel’s Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. At their best, the time-travel scenes wear their learning lightly, riffing on the past in a way that illuminates the present.
That playful exploration of how we think about the past elevates the movie above the typical rom-com. The sad thing, though, is that it could have been much more—if the satirization of the present weren’t so facile, if any of the sketches of historical figures transcended caricature, if the movie bothered to show us the artistic potential in Gil that Hemingway and Stein supposedly see. Allen’s light, bright approach to his material is fun but ultimately unsatisfying. Midnight in Paris is just good enough to make its failure to achieve greatness a disappointment.